Jay Leno gave his final goodbye to The Tonight Show recently, and as is the natural order of the universe, he was given his proper media sendoff: His audience saying goodbye while the papers and blogosphere viciously thrash him while sucking off David Letterman. The great late night narrative between these two is that Leno did way too much to appeal to middle America while Letterman reigns supreme on the edge of late night comedy.
I’m certain that viewpoint has something to do with the fact that Letterman composes a top ten list at random every night, which is nice and neat and organized to the people who regularly watch his show. Because here’s the thing: I’m not entirely sure just what the difference between the two of them is. I like late night television and am a tremendous fan of stand-up comedy, so I’ve seen plenty of both of them, and I just don’t see enough of a difference between their late night acts to cling to one and trash the other. Yet, Leno vs. Letterman commands the kind of cult war which became so prominent in the 90’s, right along with Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola and Super NES vs. Genesis.
I follow stand-up enough to know well that Leno, before The Tonight Show, was a well-known and very edgy comic, and he never did quite leave his stand-up heart. He continued performing stand-up shows while hosting The Tonight Show between polishes of his classic car collection, and I always appreciate the apparent soft spot he has for Western New York. However, like every other late night talk show host, Leno wasn’t capable of writing up new stuff for every single night, so he employed a team of writers to help him tackle the job. The way I always saw it, his writers always came off as interchangeable with Letterman’s.
Leno and Letterman were both irrepressible cornballs who could easily pass for one-line comedians, and they really would have been a lot funnier if they had actually put off the lame opening monologue routines and gone in that direction. Letterman in particular has been doing this routine for so long that he’s not even trying to be the funnyman anymore. Instead, he’s aping ESPN or Fox News commentators by throwing out random groups of jokes and hoping something sticks.
It’s an injustice of entertainment that these two managed to hog so much of the attention. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that they’ve both got the earliest slots in the late night wars on network television, because the better shows are all on cable. Conan O’Brien’s first late night show was a royal bore every time I watched it, but since quitting and moving to the 11 slot of TBS, he’s been consistently providing the funniest, most random, and most unexpected sketches and routines in the official talk show business. But’s he’s only the funniest guy on the official late night talk circuit. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert run rings around everyone who airs during those hours. Jimmy Fallon – judging strictly on the little of him I’ve seen – has also been extremely creative.
Meanwhile, Leno and Letterman stood on their sets night after night, making the same dated pop culture jokes. It’s traditional to believe that they had both been placed into a version of Hell where they had to go onstage in front of millions of people every night and tell those jokes, which would have bombed in comedy clubs in Des Moines. Then again, if either of them ever thought that was Hell, maybe they should have tried watching it.
Farewell, Jay Leno, you certainly served your purpose, there’s no arguing that. You’ll be missed. By someone, somewhere, I guess. I look forward to testing Jimmy Fallon.