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Good news comes in the form of a scoop from the Washington Post in this morning’s editions: Comedian Jay Leno could well be restored as host of the Tonight Show, the perch from which he was so unjustly deposed last year by Conan O’Brien.
If this qualifies as a promotion for Leno, that makes me happy, though it takes some doing for me to go public with my feelings on the matter.
Back in the glory years, when Leno was killing it as Tonight Show host, I would occasionally volunteer my affection for his show in mixed company. Yes, I enjoyed the monologue. Loved “Headlines” and guffawed at “Bizarre Christmas Gifts.” Here was a show, I’d argue, hosted by a good guy who lived for comedy. Great smile, great jokes, and onstage bonhomie—-what more could you ask for?
A lot, if you trusted the opinions of my friends and colleagues. “Oh, vomit,” declared a colleague this past September as I got pumped about the debut of Leno’s 10 p.m. show on NBC.
Vomit indeed captures the intellectual tenor of the Leno v. Rest of the Comedy World debate. A long time ago, I was at a bar with some friends when the topic came up. Someone had remembered that I was a Leno fan and threw that notion-cum-bait into the conversation. Everyone pounced, lighting into me about Chris Rock or Conan or some other killer comic on cable.
By that point, I was used to having to defend this guy, and so I recited my litany. Leno spent ages on the comedy circuit and has the finest, most precise delivery out there. He recovers from a bomb with grace. He has a great rapport with Kev and other Tonight Show crew. He makes me laugh. Plus, it’s all a matter of taste.
And the fact that you have none, came the snark from the table.
And so it’s gone over the years. Each expression of Leno fandom prompts the same mystified rebuttals, with exclamation points landing after the following points: Jay’s not funny. He’s not a good interviewer. He recites the same, tired jokes over and over. He’s still telling Clinton sex jokes. He’s boring.
The Leno attacks, I’ve always figured, are to be expected in and around what I call the District’s gentrification plume—-an area populated by what our company’s former CEO would call “urban explorers.” Smart people of refined tastes, urbanites, whatever.
Hence my theory that the hipster demographic hates Jay Leno. All the ingredients for a bad relationship are right on the shelf: Leno is a big, rich white guy who radiates establishment. He has way too many cars. And his brand of entertainment comes via a behemoth broadcast network, so there’s no process of discovery, no in-the-know cachet, to tapping into Leno.
A little Jaywalking upended my theory. In September, in anticipation of Leno’s prime-time program, I stood outside two famous hipster farms in D.C. and interviewed folks about Leno, with a question designed to coax them into spitting fire: “Are you excited about Jay Leno’s return to TV next Monday?”
“Not really—I don’t watch TV,” said one respondent outside of Tryst coffee shop in Adams Morgan. “I don’t watch television,” said another. “I don’t watch TV—-sorry,” said another. The closest I came to the Leno-hating hipster was one 33-year-old Gavin Hamilton, who blaséd his way through this response at Busboys And Poets: “I didn’t even know he was coming back. I don’t find him particularly funny.”
But he’s nice. A friend of mine once worked at a southern California comedy club where Leno performed. He said two things about the comic—-that he ate tons of food and that he was a great guy, a joy to be around. That’s why I tuned into the Tonight Show, that’s why I tuned in to the 10 p.m. show, and that’s why I’d follow him back to the late slot.