Oct 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Jay Leno, what a sellout. Of course, that hardly makes him an oddity in Hollywood. Is he just a sellout for ratings-which hardly constitutes even a minor misdemeanor-or for some kind of political power, which would explain his making a spectacle of himself, basking in the refracted glory of, and sucking up to, bosomy Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger?” Whew. Wow. Brrrrr. That chilling phrase alone gives added credence to the theory, put forth by this column, that when we crossed the millennial line we also went through the looking glass. Much of what has happened since has been absurd, backward, topsy-turvy, off-kilter or just plain mad. A pet white tiger sinks its choppers into Roy of Siegfried and Roy!?! It just isn’t done! But it was, and then Siegfried one-upped the loony-tunes factor by appearing on Larry King’s show to say, in an accent eerily similar to Arnold’s, that the tiger was just trying to “protect” Roy.
Nothing is too insane to be believed any more.
This Leno business may be part of a trend. Certainly, few national entertainment figures personify dignity and class to a lesser degree than does Leno, who owes much of his success to the night that Hugh Grant turned up to talk about his sex life, a Leno turning-point in the ratings. Suddenly a lot of viewers defected from Dave Letterman and haven’t drifted back, except on occasion.
But consorting with Arnold represents a Leno low. He’s been widely chided for “taking it easy” on Arnold in his monologues and in those pathetic charades that pass for sketches or comedy bits. But then to be seen cavorting at Arnold’s victory celebration and coming across as a cigar-sharing chum of Das Goof, that was beyond the usual limits. It was unseemly in a way reminiscent of then-NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer’s participation in the O.J. Simpson party that followed Simpson’s victory in criminal court, then persecuting “Saturday Night Live” mock-anchor Norm Macdonald, who just happened to do lots of O.J. jokes in his bitterly funny “Weekend Updates.”
(That unhappy affair-which may have indeed had nothing to do with Ohlmeyer’s friendship with Simpson-is of course vividly recalled in “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of `Saturday Night Live”’ by yours truly and James Andrew Miller, just out in an expanded, digitally remastered paperback edition for the dizzyingly modest price of $15.95. But now, back to our discussion of what a sellout Jay Leno is).
Leno’s unique set of situational ethics has been with him from before the beginning-from the days when he stabbed both Johnny Carson and David Letterman in their backs to secure the “Tonight Show” gig. Sundry shady maneuvers committed on Leno’s behalf were all ascribed to his longtime Machiavellian manager Helen Kushnick, an emotionally troubled woman who lived a painfully difficult life and died in 1996 when only 51.
In Bill Carter’s book “The Late Shift” (see, we plug other people’s books too) and the subsequent HBO movie, Leno was portrayed as a clueless dupe unaware of foul deeds being executed on his behalf-deeds that would result in his eventually becoming a mega-multimillionaire, equipped to play in Arnold’s league and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a fleet of exotic cars. How to pay off California’s daunting deficit? Maybe sell Leno’s car collection as a start.
Over the years several readers have pointed out that Leno garnered beaucoup favorable press during his peripatetic stand-up career for scrupulously avoiding dirty comedy in his act, which was, overall, truly a marvel of comedy craftsmanship. But when Leno got the “Tonight” show, the keep-it-clean rule went right out the window. Where Carson could be disarmingly naughty and subtly suggestive, Leno often seems the snide smut-peddler, not only willing but eager to stoop as a cheap means of wooing the young-adult-male demographic. He’s built himself a solid yahoo constituency.
He still gets kudos in some corners for avoiding sexist, exploitative stuff, but as time goes on, this seems less prominent.
The pertinent question is whether his embrace of Arnold (and that can’t be an easy embrace) represents a showbiz trend: Go where the money is, and right now the money is with politicians of Arnold’s persuasion. Witness one Dennis Miller, the snarling name-dropper who, particularly in recent frazzled appearances on Bill Maher’s smart and lively “Real Time” show on HBO, has done a Mort Sahl on us, changing his political stripes from left to right so as to cash in on what’s currently in vogue. What’s currently in vogue is the crude, sniperlike sarcasm of glamourpuss pit bull Ann Coulter, so deftly deflated by Al Franken in his book “Lies and the Lying Liars. … ”.
Franken attacks a fairly new species of grenade-throwing partisan political “humorist” for whom caution is merely the first sign of civility tossed to the winds. There’s a distressing viciousness to these one-sided pundits, few of whom appear to speak for responsible conservatism, much less the “compassionate” kind, certainly not the intellectual George Will kind. Politics makes strange cagefellows. Is Jay Leno getting into that cage or has he already done so? Is this alleged mainstream comic and talk-show host going to become a harshly partisan echo in a chorus already overstocked with vitriolic voices?