I’m no big fan of Jay Leno, and I’m an old fan of Conan O’Brien’s, so this rumor that NBC is about to bump Conan to give Jay a softer landing back at his old desk makes me a little insane. Still, when I read a piece like Mary Elizabeth Williams’s bit at Salon asking why Jay doesn’t just get canceled, I’m reminded that most of the thoughtful television reviewers have almost no connection to the actual TV audiences out there. So, though I don’t like the thought of Jay Leno keeping his (or taking Conan’s) job, I think I understand why it’s possible.
Williams wants to know why Leno gets to stick around, despite not being particularly funny:
All of which leads to the question – why does a show so lame exist at all? Well, with one set, no actors and what often looks like no writers, it’s so relatively cheap to produce it makes reality TV extravagant. It’s also still influential. Leno’s is the softest of softball venues, making it the go-to spot for a controversial celebrity… And because the show’s also so desperate for content, Leno devotes a large portion of airtime to other comics, giving up-and-coming performers an almost unprecedented platform (would that such a magnanimous break were bestowed more often on worthier talent). So despite the show’s mediocrity, as one well-known standup comic – who’s done the late-night rounds many times — told me yesterday, comedians “care about Leno because he’s in primetime. Huge audience.”
All of which is true, and none of which answers the central question: Why is Leno lame? Network executives, for all that we mock and make fun of them, aren’t dumb. They can’t be watching the same Leno broadcasts and laughing their heads off, either, not when they’re also programming shows like “The Office.” No: NBC knows exactly how lame Jay Leno is, and they also understand that this is part of his brilliance and popularity.
Think about the audience you’re talking about, for a moment. Leno used to command the time slot just after the local news. Who watches the local news? People who haven’t been in front of a computer all day, or who don’t have wifi in their homes and a laptop to curl up with. People who want to know tomorrow’s weather and school lunch menus. People who, at the end of the day, are looking for a very, very soft place to land, mentally. Jay Leno and his broad, silly humor provide just such a place.
If you’re thinking this is a break from the late-night hosts of old, who were actually funny, forget it. Sure, Johnny Carson was funny, but not in a sharp way. He was funny situationally, but it’s still, to look at it, much blander humor than even what makes it onto Saturday Night Live. The problem for Leno may be that all his schtick looks old by now, because it’s been done for so many years. Then again, that’s also part of his charm.
If you turn on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show (or now, “The Jay Leno Show,”) the thing you can be most guaranteed is that you won’t be offended. You can rest easily after even multiple minutes of watching Leno, without anything new to puzzle over or to be pissed about. Jay Leno isn’t supposed to be funny — he’s supposed to be easy. Conan is closer to being funny, sure, but his brand of humor is filled with awkward moments, self deprication, clever jokes, sharp edges. He’s a good comic and a smart guy, two things Leno seems to go to pains to hide about himself. Yet he’s not what the late-night demographic of local sports fans wants at 10:30 p.m., and without serious laming, he won’t ever be.
I hope the network doesn’t move Conan, in part because it felt like a generational passing of the torch when he took up The Tonight Show. Yet I think he’ll do OK in any slot, because his fans are more likely to seek out his monologues and clips on Hulu than Leno’s fans will ever be. Leno, however, needs the priming of the nightly news update to make his particular brand of cool comfort viable.