May 28, 2009

The War on Late Night

Jay Leno

Jay Leno vs. the Jelly Donut

Jay Leno once caught me stealing a jelly donut.

OK, I really wasn't stealing it. I was taking a tour of "The Tonight Show" offices, including the kitchen, and the publicist for the show at the time actually invited me to grab a bit from the box of Winchell's.

And wouldn't you know it, the moment I bit into the gooey center of said danish, Leno decided to walk in. He said "hi"; I just stood there with red jelly all over my face.

Talk about comic timing.

Thankfully, all the cliches about Leno being a "nice guy" and a man of the people turned out to be true. Instead of making me feel a fool, Leno just laughed, made some sort of joke -- and immediately put me at ease.

The ability to make everyone feel comfortable is the reason why Leno has had so much success during his career, particularly as host of "The Tonight Show" these past 17 years. Dave may be more brilliant, Stewart more relevant-- but for both guests and viewers, Jay has been the comfy pajamas you can't wait to slip into on a cold night.

Of course, some critics would call Leno the TV equivalent of the mediocre meal you get at the Hometown Buffet. Cheap, filling and utterly forgettable.

But that take has become the minority opinion in recent years, I think. Leno might not be a critical darling, but his endurrance, classiness and well-documented work ethic have quieted the carping that surrounded his first five or ten years on the job. (The slams against the idiotic Dancing Itos were deserved).

The most welcome by-product of Leno's longevity: Dramatically fewer stories about the late-night "wars." Jay has his audience, Dave his core viewers, Stewart and Colbert get their Emmys: Everybody's a winner.

Tonight, Leno will decamp from the latenight battlefield. He's once again facing an army of skeptical industry insiders, many of whom have already decided his attempt to revolutionize primetime with a nightly comedy show will meet with disaster.

Could happen. NBC's 10 p.m. scheme is rife with risk.

But this much is sure: Whatever happens this fall, however, Jay Leno will always be remembered as a faithful steward of one of TV's most enduring institutions.

  • Posted May 28 at 9:52 PM

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