Love it or Hate it: Jay Leno

by David Holub

Love itJay Leno began hosting the “Tonight Show” in 1992, just as I entered high school. With limited access to stand-up on television then, Leno was one of the few comics I could see on a regular basis and, with his disarming charm and skewer-and-slay-with-a-smile wit, became a huge influence on my sense of humor and made him one of the best, in my young opinion.

But forget me, take it from the greatest, most transformative comedian ever: Jerry Seinfeld. On his web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Seinfeld says, simply, “Jay is one of the greatest stand-up comedians I have ever seen.”

When you host a network show for almost 20 years you have to be likable, palatable and adhere to certain broadcast standards. This might give the air of bland or safe comedy, which has always dogged Leno. But it shows how Leno worked within confines and was still funny night after night. It also indicates just how durable Jay Leno was as a comedian, generating comedy and performing in front of millions who kept coming back for decades. He had to be doing something right, ending his “Tonight Show” stint as the No. 1 late-night talk show. Leno was also widely known inside and out as a nice, generous average guy, despite his celebrity. Doesn’t the world need more of those?

But back to Seinfeld, who said, “I always tell people that I learned comedy from Jay.” That’s argument enough for me.

— David HolubHate itI’ve heard Jay Leno used to be good, back before he took over the “Tonight Show.” I can’t vouch for that – I was either unborn or too young. I do know Leno stole “Tonight” from David Letterman (a vastly more talented host) in the ’90s and later refused to retire when NBC wanted to replace him with Conan O’Brien (another more likable comedian).

None of that drama would influence my admiration, though, if only Leno was funny. But he’s not. He’s vanilla. His jokes are safe. His interviews are insincere. He sucks up to guests instead of challenging them. He’s not hip and silly like Fallon, nerdy and lovable like Conan, suavely amiable like Craig Ferguson, or sassy like Letterman. He doesn’t even pull off funny bits like Kimmel’s “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” (for the record, I don’t think Kimmel is a good host, either).

Sure, Fallon ass-kisses, but at least he seems genuinely delighted by pop culture trends. And before you accuse me of ageism: Letterman was an old fart too, and he was my favorite. He admitted to being out of touch. He mocked young, sexy celebrities to their faces. (Like when he discovered Justin Bieber didn’t know what the Sistine Chapel is.) He never tried to seem cool, as Leno so feebly does.

Leno wants to appeal to everybody. But when you stand for nothing, you fall for anything. You’re a coward. He has whined endlessly about how the late-night game screwed him – and he’s made a fair few enemies. When that many people in your industry dislike you, it’s a bad sign. “He totally sold out,” Kimmel has said. “He was a master chef who opened a Burger King.”

— Anya Jaremko-Greenwold


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