Lenos legacy is more about business than sheer comic talent.
Theres this scene in season three of Louie where Jay Leno cautions Louis C.K. by telling him hes the big, edgy comic of the moment followed by a wary and weary, Yeah, that used to be me.
For all the decades that Jay Leno has been a national presence as some sort of Everyman, this one line offers the most genuine look into the comics psyche. At least in a nutshell.
To me, Leno has never been hip. By the time late night television seriously entered my conscience the names of Leno, Letterman and Carson were legendary but relegated to characters acting out a modern, off-air version of Macbeth. They were also old. When deconstructing the Leno legacy, everything but the comedy will ultimately define him; which is a shame considering hes such an expert craftsman regardless of taste level.
Full faith and disclosure: I am a huge Conan OBrien fan and it was through him that I began my love for late night television. With that said, I thought while NBC was thinking about money (as they should), OBriens The Tonight Show was only a shadow of what he did hosting Late Night. His best moments during his brief tenure were the cold open from the first episode and the last two weeks when he was a lame duck. If Im able to rip my hero, I should be able to recognize his villains brilliance. OBrien was too quirky, too whimsical and too smart for The Tonight Show audience. Lenos decision to play Average Joe to Middle America is what allowed him to hold on as long as he did. But why is that a bad thing and is that the headline on his career?
His meticulous and extreme work ethic is the first part of Lenos true impact on comedy. Playing to Middle America may have been selling out; it could also be knowing your audience.
John Lennon said, Im an artist, give me a tuba and Ill get something out of it. Sure, Middle America isnt as cerebral as either coast likes to proclaim, but Leno knew what they liked and delivered. Nightly. For decades. You have to respect his sheer power in numbers.
Mention any iconic comedian and the perception is that genius just flowed through them. The stories of Leno spending hours upon hours creating the daily monologue, repeating the joke over and over, finding just the right cadence, proves that comedy is hard work and that there is a formula for funny. Carlin, Pryor, Seinfeld all had one, even if they didnt flaunt it (except for that whole show about nothing bit). But it was that peek into the Leno mindset that made him not only a comics comic but an actual humanone whos obsessive (or cares) and eventually suffered for his pound of fleshnot the Average Joe soft-shoe dance he does nightly.
His comedic obsession highlights his humanity but his obsession to stay on top gave a bigger view to the subtle intricacies of how television and late-night television work. The stories of lurking in the shadows of NBC Affiliate conference calls and his ceaseless appetite for ratings and numbers are well known and often maligned. That may not have been the most scrupulous maneuver, but to win the game you have to know the rules or whos changing them.
Before I heard that story, ratings and demographics meant nothing.
Now that those terms have entered the lexicon, its easy to see who is gravitating to what, why and how networks think that adding the right mix of the two will generate results (it hasnt yet, at least not for NBC).
Secondly, its a new dimension to the storytelling dynamic. Breaking the fourth wall has long since been done, as well as the show within a show, but meta-commentary about ratings fueling content and comedy has given comedies from The Larry Sanders Show to 30 Rock to Louie some of their best turns. Its true that Leno didnt champion this per se, but his methods and the importance of hosting and keeping The Tonight Show (first with Letterman and later with Conan), brought it up for discussion.
With Fallon officially replacing Leno this time next year, the easy question could be: will his last days go out with a bang or a whimper? The easy answer is that it will be the same as it ever was: a 30-joke monologue, second skit, two guests with two pre-planned anecdotes and some musical guest. All done with ruthless efficiency.
His comment regarding stepping down from The Tonight Show ended with, If you need me, Ill be at the garage. He meant tinkering on jokes, not his vintage cars.