The Late Shift War for Late Night – A Comic’s Response

by BradChad Porter

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Hack /hak/ n. 1. a person who produces banal or mediocre work.

Is there anything more banal than being the millionth person today to tweet about how bad Jay Leno is at comedy?

Well, it appears Jay Leno’s actual last episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno airs tonight. As America’s celebrities say their tearful goodbyes it occurs to us you probably want to read LTB’s reaction to all of this.

Jay Leno was a great host, and it is sad to watch him go. There. I said it.

Comedians spend our lives surrounded by other comics. Our days are filled with snark and “irony.” Bitterness is industry lingo. Somehow, Jay Leno is at the top of the target list among the have-nots in stand-up comedy. It’s a popular pastime among comics who haven’t been seen by a lot of people to take impotent shots at joke thieves, bro-humor comics, Def Jam comics, and Jay Leno. One of these things is not like the others.

As Jay prepares to step from behind the most important desk in comedy let’s consider two things.

Thing 1 – Jay Leno is really good at what he does. Jay Leno is as entertaining to watch as anybody on late night TV. You want to know how I can say that? Because he consistently beat the shit out of everybody else who does that job. For some reason in America if a thing isn’t our favorite thing then we act like it shouldn’t exist. “Jay Leno does jokes that appeal to more people than just me and my friends? – Then Fuck Him, he shouldn’t have a job!” Whether he is your favorite guy or not he has/had/has always had the right to fight for his job because he has been really damn good at it.

Thing the 2nd – Jay Leno is the only pure stand-up comic to ever host the Tonight Show. It seems odd to say since the Tonight Show is famously the most important place on TV for stand-up comics through the years, but it’s true. Steve Allen was a radio guy, an actor, and a writer. Jack Parr was also a radio DJ, film actor, and game show/talk show host. The great Johnny Carson was practically born hosting shows on radio and then TV. Conan O’Brien was a writer then a host. Jay Leno was a stand-up comedian. He did stand-up comedy shows at clubs, bars, colleges, and strip clubs. Because of this, he has probably been better for the art of stand-up comedy than any other single person alive today. Feel free to debate the point, but come with names of people who have been seen by a larger audience, given more comics their big break, and lasted as long as Jay. Otherwise don’t bother.

Here’s an idea: watch the show or don’t. Enjoy it or don’t, but appreciate that a big thing is happening. Acknowledge that you’re not a media critic, and know that if you are you’re not as good at anything as Jay Leno is at hosting the Tonight Show.

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10 thoughts on “The Late Shift War for Late Night – A Comic’s Response

  1. So many things to say. Here’s ten of them.

    1) Jay Leno took a shit on what was the most important desk in standup comedy. He did away with “calling comics” over. The exact thing that made him, he ended. Blame an overbearing producer, blame the network, blame whomever, but it was his call.

    2) Name me 5 interviews, just 5 in a history of thousands, that resonated with the American people on some level beyond a 24 hour news cycle. I’ll even front you Hugh Grant. So now you’re only left with 4.

    3) Conan.

    4) Is Jay Leno #1 because he is good or do people think he’s good because he’s #1? Just because something is the most popular thing doesn’t mean it’s the best. McDonald’s is the #1 restaurant in the United States. Sure, they’re #1 so they’re doing something right and that something is shovelling shit into the mouths of people who should probably know better. FOX News is the #1 rated news channel in the nation. FOX News. They’re far from the best but they do love some Leno.

    5) Name me 5 comics who got their “break” on Leno. I’ll wait. Just 5. Not 5 comics who made appearances but 5 comics who got jettisoned from obscurity over night like your Seinfelds, Drew Careys or Ellens. Just 5.

    6) No one will regale anyone with the dream, “All I wanted was to be on Leno because I knew if I could make it there I’d make it anywhere!”

    7) He has no children and as he gets older he sees his legacy is going to be a bunch of old cars and the worst tenure on the Tonight Show.

    8) Plenty of people who are exceptionally famous don’t like Leno and gain nothing from it. Kimmel. Stern. Arsenio. Johnny Carson. Doc Severeson. Letterman. Me.

    9) Adam Sandler and David Letterman have done more for standup comedians today than anyone else. Swardson. Romano. Smith. Rock. All have in some way been effected by the reach of those two. Leno, no one. Not one. Tom Papa? Seinfeld’s buddy.

    10) People don’t like Leno because he’s a two faced jag who isn’t funny. He’s apparently great on stage. Letterman said it. Seinfeld said it. But where is that Jay Leno? Gone. He’s buried whatever memory people have of a once great comic beneath years of safe interviews, easy bits and horrible monologues. Just because you are #1 at a thing doesn’t mean you’re good at it. No one I know watches NCIS, but it’s #1. We’re a country built on people striving to be #1. We just don’t know what to do once we’re there. Jay Leno is modern America. I just think America has a fighting chance.

  2. Points to both of you!
    Everything Joel says is precisely accurate, but everything Brad says is very true.
    Thanks for not trying to be the loudest idiots in the room and for forming arguments based on logic and evidence that aren’t reduced to pettiness and name-calling, jags.

  3. Ok, here we go…
    1) Specious… He doesn’t do things the way Johnny did because he doesn’t have the gravitas that Johnny had. But thanks for opening the door to the specious. I wanted to say this in the post, but I couldn’t. Here’s something personal and specious: After my divorce I spent a little more than a month in Chicago. My good friend, Derek Smith, who saved my life by doing so, brought me up to live and work with him for 45 days. I had my first good set after my whole life got ruined on stage at an open mic in a bar called Cole’s. The host/show-runner was a comic named Cameron Esposito. We talked after the show. She was the first comic to be nice to me, supportive, and encouraging in a time when I was absolutely lost. From that point on I’ve followed her career and rooted for her with all my little heart. Then, late last year I saw that Jay was a part of this…
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/21/cameron-esposito-lesbian-comedian_n_3938010.html
    I just don’t hate the guy.
    2) Not the point, but here’s your list… 1- I’ll take Hugh Grant because it was when the tide turned in Jay’s favor in the beginning. 2- Arnold Schwarzenegger after the sexual harassment accusations. 3- First late night talk show interview with a sitting president, Barrack Obama 4- Kanye West after the Mtv music awards where he was shitty to Taylor Swift 5- Letting Jimmy Kimmel come on and grill him about the Conan debacle resonated as well… Still tho, not the point. Making a list of lists why Jay is the greatest is not my intention nor is it what I wrote.
    3) To paraphrase humanitarian and entrepreneur, Vince McMahon, Conan screwed Conan. The inciting incident that lead to Conan’s departure from NBC came when Conan demanded that he get the Tonight Show or he was leaving the network. There’s nothing wrong with that, but by forcing the issue and not letting Jay determine his own destiny the way a #1 talk show host should be allowed Conan was guilty of drawing first blood. Was Jay the bigger man? No. But he was number one, and had every right to fight for that job.
    4) That’s simple. Jay’s #1 because more people turn to NBC at 10:30 than anywhere else in late night. He is found by more people to be more entertaining than his competitors. I very much didn’t say Jay Leno is the best late night talk show host. Personally, I prefer Greg Gutfeld… *fart noise*
    5) There is no longer one single mountain top from which comedians are made. Everybody takes opportunities from across everywhere – But it’s clear that Jay has pushed people from one plateau to the next whether it’s from the bottom to somewhere, from somewhere to the top, or from trouble back to grace… Ugh… This is gonna hurt. Here’s your list: Tom Papa, Carrot Top, Whitney Cummings, Jim Norton, Dennis Miller, Bill Maher… all people who were rescued, helped up, helped out, or out right broken into the big time by Jay Leno. Making a list of lists why Jay is the greatest is again not my intention nor is it what I wrote.
    6) I disagree. The Tonight show with Jay Leno is not the comic mountain top that the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was, but nothing will ever be again. Getting a break on the Tonight Show still means being seen by more people at one time than any other place a comedian can perform.
    7) Worst tenure on the Tonight show? So, if offered, you’d be Conan- 6 months of battling Letterman, including a franchise low ratings-wise, over 20+ years of being Jay, dominating the late night landscape. Jay averaged 2 million more viewers than did Conan. (Please don’t make me argue that Jay dominated Conan again. My mouth tastes like poop right now.)
    8) Feel free to hate and gain nothing, but that hasn’t really worked for any of us thus far. again *fart noise*
    9) I’m sure that there are a lot of teams of two people you could join together and get a higher head count of comics they’ve helped launch than I can think of Jay launching, but that has nothing to do with what I said in the post. -See 5)-
    10) And this is the crux of my point. I’ll repeat, the fact that me and my friends aren’t fans of a thing does not revoke its right to exist. Nor does it invalidate its, dare I say, artistic merit.

    • 1) Leno said something nice about someone while on someone else’s show, a show produced by Letterman. He didn’t say, “Hey, come be on the Tonight Show.” which she has yet to be on. He seized an opportunity to seem like the “cool guy” in the room. On someone else’s show.

      2) Hugh Grant is where the inexplicable shift took place. Kimmel was not planned and an utter disaster from Jay’s point of view. Aside from the Hugh Grant example all of the others took place within the last 5 years. It’s not Jay’s job to be hard hitting news but his entire run has been pablum.

      3) I’m not sure where the “Conan demanded the Tonight Show” narrative is coming from but he did have offers to leave NBC and go to other networks. NBC offered it to him. Nothing wrong with that but Jay saying one thing and doing another isn’t “fighting”. No other job in the world can you be told you’ll be let go, concede, get a same job with earlier hours and then complain and whine your way back into your old job. If Leno has such a huge fan base, why did his show fail? People don’t like Jay, they just like a thing that’s on.

      4) Yes, he’s #1 because more people turn their TV to NBC at 11:30/10:30 C but why? There’s nothing behind it. It’s just a thing NBC runs.

      5) Jay may have helped folks when they were “down” but no one has been made a star from it. Whitney? She had her own thing going well before she was on Jay Leno. She even appeared on Conan’s Tonight Show before Jay’s. So, there’s that. He never did anything beyond what would help him.

      6) Yes and Mount Tonight Show was destroyed by Jay Leno.

      7) Best tenure for the numbers, worst tenure for pop culture impact and comedic relevance.

      8) Conan’s numbers weren’t great but it’s not like he was given much of chance.

      9) See 5.

      10) I never said it shouldn’t exist. There’s a lot of things I think shouldn’t exist like racism, slam poetry or Texas, but that’s not the point. The Tonight Show exists. It is #1. I just don’t think praising Leno is the way to go. “Helluva job making something great just…something.” I’m glad he’s leaving and don’t think it’s as big a deal because he’s done it before and at the end of the day people don’t care. Really. As is evidenced by this dumb back and forth between two grown men on the internet. Christ.

  4. Also, from a purely semantic point of view, it seems like this piece is written from an audience member’s perspective, not a comic’s. A comic would never greet the success of another comic with anything other than anger, resentment and a ten-point list of talking points as to why that comic is awful.

  5. As a “non” stand-up “comedian”, I surprisingly have an opinion on this subject. And remember that as a white male, my opinions are absolute. Here’s what I think: Have you guys ever heard Led Zeppelin? Man, I listened to their album called “Who’s Next” the other day, and hoooo-wee – those girls have some serious rock chops!!

    #TeamArsenio

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