Much has already been said about Jay Leno’s move to prime time. Jaime Weinman and Mark Evanier have some interesting insights into what NBC might be thinking, though for my money, political blogger Attaturk had the best one-line reaction: “Paddy Chayevsky was an optimist.”
I will confess that I find Leno hard to watch. And although I can certainly identify things that annoy me—the predictability of his punchlines, his Arsenio-like insincerity with guests, the faux-macho bluster that has crept into his persona over the last few years, his blatant stylistic stealing from Letterman, and especially his creepy and borderline racist on-camera relationship with bandleader/toady Kevin “Heh-heh-heh” Eubanks—I can’t put my finger on the cause of this visceral dislike.
I almost wish I liked him better. He is, after all, the late-night ratings champ—has been for years. I feel like a snob for disliking him. I respect his work ethic, and the fact that he’s honoring the Carson legacy by doing a long, topical monologue chock-full of well-crafted (if predictable) topical jokes—jokes that aren’t “meta”-jokes, but jokes that are actually about what they’re about. I’d like to think that’s not a lost art.
I’ll even confess to actually enjoying “Jay-Walking”—which a lot of Leno detractors point to as the nadir of Lenoism. I actually think some of the criticism of this bit—”it’s hypocritical to expose the stupidity of the average American, while playing to an audience made up of similarly low-information, ‘average’ viewers”—itself smacks of a complicated kind of elitism. It’s okay to say Leno’s viewers are stupid, but terrible of him to go out exposing their stupidity. I don’t know; I think it’s a kind of Public Service.
That said, the move to 10 o’clock (9 Central) is a kind of watershed moment. Part of the reason late-night has been the place for “political” humor is the assumption that the audience was more adult and “sophisticated.” In the old days, Johnny hosted a grown-up cocktail party after the Cleaver kids had gone to bed. The subject matter discussed, and the whole tone of The Tonight Show had a different feel than the “for young-and-old” paradigm of Prime Time.
Of course, this is an oversimplification. More than that, it’s extremely dated: the “family-friendliness” of Prime Time was never all that solidly established, and waxed and waned for decades before being definitively abandoned in recent years. Nothing could be less wholesome than “Survivor”-style reality shows, which have for some time been common in what was once the “Family Hour.” And that’s just the networks. I think MTV now reserves that time slot for The Meth-Addicted Prostitute ‘n’ Backstabbing Sociopath Super Team-Up Product-Placement Hour.
But competitive sluttery and bug-eating contests are one thing; politics is something else. The day after NBC’s big announcement, Countdown‘s Keith Olbermann (looking a little embarrassed about participating in this boundary-blurring moment of newsertainment corporate synergy) asked Leno about breaking political humor’s time barrier. In face, he asked twice, but Leno more or less ducked the question, offering little more than the lame and self-serving “observation” that “people are going to bed earlier” nowadays (something about the economy forcing more people to take public transportation, and therefore to get up an hour earlier, blah, blah, blah…for a multi-millionaire who owns an airplane hanger full of cars, Jay’s got his finger on the pulse of his viewers’ commuting habits).
In fact, the further mainstreaming of Leno-style topical comedy is yet another sign of how commonplace the cynical notion that politics is just a big, bipartisan clown show has become. It’s the premise not only of traditional, “equal opportunity offender” topical comedy, but also the rhetorical home base of newschat, on cable and Sunday morning network shows. Why not have the comedic version of this in prime time? The “serious” version is running 24-hours a day on CNN.
The good news—or the glimmer of hope, anyway—is that network TV thinking is almost always a step or two behind the times. And the times, they really could be a-changing. I cling to the hope that a lot of people are fed up with what passes for political journalism, political comedy, and political “sophistication” (i.e., utter cynicism). While Leno’s invasion of Prime Time may look like the establishment of a new beachhead for this kind of thinking, it could end up being a Bridge Too Far. After all, people who want political humor that is actually humorous, and has something to say about politics, aren’t going to bed earlier—they’re watching Stewart and Colbert.