I mean, Howard Stern, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Leno’s reputation as a preternaturally nice and normal guy may be part of it. The Conan O’Brien business, where he appeared to have thrown O’Brien under a bus by taking back his old show, is certainly a factor, although everyone knows Leno was killing in that time slot and NBC began to regret the bonehead move of booting their Letterman killer. O’Brien just isn’t that good. And he couldn’t hold Leno’s ratings.
And Leno would never had ceded his throne to anyone had NBC not shown such little confidence in Leno’s staying power. In 1995, with the famous Hugh Grant appearance, Leno for the first time as host beat Letterman in the ratings. There was a steady climb until his departure in 2009, when The Tonight Show reigned supreme in late night. Yet, in 2004, NBC offered Leno only a five-year contract, no doubt convinced that Leno couldn’t hold his lead for long or continue to attract the all-important 18-34 (or is it 49?) demographic. The network was wrong.
For Letterman, well, Leno got the gig Letterman thought was rightfully his when Carson
was pushed out retired. (If you haven’t seen it, rent The Late Shift, which is very telling—offering insights into both Letterman’s insecurities and Leno’s craftier side. “I may look stupid, but I’m Italian. I know how to find information!”)
As for Howard Stern, that feud goes back decades, and do you really want him for a friend in the first place? Kimmel comes across as a snotty, petty jerk who should just be happy he has a career, which began as Ben Stein’s monkey-like sidekick on Comedy Central’s Win Ben Stein’s Money. (Leno famously invited Kimmel on his show as an effort to make peace a couple of years ago, and Kimmel took the opportunity to take potshots at the Tonight Show star, whose ratings at the time Kimmel couldn’t buy with the promise of All Nude Girls.)
I guess this is what’s so baffling: all these guys are fabulously successful by any metric you want to apply. From stand-up to super-stardom and millions upon millions. O’Brien took home $45 million just by leaving NBC (he wasn’t fired), only to go on a nationwide Pity Me tour.
I came across this piece from two years ago, which also helps explain some of the animus.
To comedy writers, Leno’s massive success represents the triumph of mediocrity. It’s the tragedy of a prodigiously talented stand-up making a conscious decision to dumb down his material to reach the widest possible audience. He won over the masses while alienating comedy geeks. He came to symbolize everything crass and mercenary about comedy. As the years went on, Leno became synonymous with Monica Lewinsky and O.J. jokes. His name became shorthand for lazy, dumb and obvious comedy. To comedy snobs, “The Tonight Show” under his nightmare realm was one long Dancing Itos sketch.
Wait a minute, they’re slamming Leno for “mediocrity,” but they’re all riding a float in O’Brien’s parade? Good gravy. Like O’Brien is Lenny Bruce, with those stupid bits of his. Plus, Johnny Carson was never exactly cutting edge. The Tonight Show just was never that show. It was never The Smothers Brothers of old, and it’s never going to be The Daily Show. It’s a showcase for movie and TV stars, and the occasional rock blockhead or country-western flavor of the month, to pimp their new projects. The jokes are supposed to be bipartisan (read not obviously more Left-leaning than Right; they do have their Orange County audience to consider), saucy but never dirty, and not beyond the heads of the average TV viewer. Which is, frankly, to aim low.
I had enough of a brush with standup comedy in my late-teen years to know how vicious comics can be. You end up standing around for hours waiting to go onstage, and the backbiting and bitterness over who got what time slot or who’s getting paid now while you’re still working gratis or who finally got that shot on Carson (Do you think Johnny will ask him to sit? No—not sit! Maybe a hand wave…) is relentless.
Bitterness is an almost universal trait among funny people. They hate it when their friends become successful. They grow positively apoplectic when success comes to someone they consider unworthy. The bigger the success, the bigger the resentment and Leno has attained a level of fame most comics can only dream about. Even more unforgivably, that success came at the expense of more worthy souls: first Letterman and now O’Brien.
Letterman, maybe. But O’Brien. I don’t see it. Time to make peace with the fact that “iron jaw” has the show every comic dreams about, while sitting in your mansion and thinking up one more Sarah Palin jab.
Anywhere, here’s a clip from the best standup of the 1970s…
And from the 1960s…