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1. He's No Johnny Carson
Carson took over The Tonight Show in 1962 and rode it to glory for thirty years, using that time to turn a niche hit into a broadcast institution. He transformed the show into a nightly ritual, a low-key party where viewers tuned in to watch celebrities hang out and banter, find out which new comedians would receive Johnny's all-important nod of approval, and, with the opening monologue, figure out what was funny about the stuff they'd heard from Walter Cronkite a few hours earlier. Like Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America", Carson's success was only possible in the days when TV consisted of three networks and high ratings really meant that most of the country was watching the same thing.
Leno was pre-selected as Carson's replacement on the basis of a five-year-long string of guest-hosting appearances that amounted to a prolonged public audition. All-too-visibly aware of the size of the shoes he was stepping into, in his first year on the job, he was overly excitable and bathed in flop sweat. How did Carson feel about having this yapping bastard as his heir apparent? Carson never publicly commented on Leno's show, but it's not hard to guess; when Leno's rival, David Letterman, bolted for CBS, Carson told reporters that he'd watched Letterman's debut show and liked what he saw. He never set foot on Leno's stage, but in 1994 he made a surprise cameo on Letterman's Late Show that would be his last TV appearance. Shortly before Carson died in 2005, it came out that he was even writing the occasional topical joke and, having no use for them himself, sending them to Letterman to use in his monologue.
2. Hell, He's Not Even Jay Leno Anymore
You kids are going to think your old man's mixed up his medications again when I tell you this, but there was a time when Jay Leno was funny. I refer to his years as a humble stand-up, many of which overlapped with his glory days as a prize guest on Letterman's old Late Night show. Back then, he cultivated the image of a loud-mouthed regular guy after beef injections, simple but not dumb, and a bit of a gearhead. This is the Leno who, when he heard Nancy Reagan had won some public-service Woman of the Year award, shot back, "I'm so glad she beat out that conniving little bitch Mother Teresa."
Unfortunately, he later said that he regretted that line — after all, Nancy Reagan had done such good work in advising the cast of Diff'rent Strokes to just say no to drugs. There was always a pandering audience whore inside the wild man, and when Leno got the comedian's equivalent of a seat on the Supreme Court, the whore ate the funnyman alive.
3. He Thinks You're Stupid
Picking up the gauntlet where Carson dropped it — firmly in the cable era — Leno could've reinvented The Tonight Show as a smaller but hipper show. It could never be the automatic water-cooler-conversation starter it had been, but it could still attract the kind of demographic that sponsors would be happy to have on tap. Instead, once it became clear that NBC was rethinking its decision to pick him over David Letterman, he rallied by jacking up the volume and dropping what was left of his brains down the toilet.
Adopting the theory that the least objectionable option has an edge over anything some nimrod might find too challenging or exciting, he embraced blandness with the conviction of a lost Jonas brother. And he was embarrassingly open about the calculations that turned him into a human weather vane: a lot of TV comics were unsure how to react after 9/11, but only Leno rushed to assure his audience, "We can't do Bush jokes anymore. He's smart now." This is what we call "kidding on the square." Or maybe "contempt for the audience." If this son of a bitch has contempt for us, why shouldn't we return the favor?
4. He Is Neither David Letterman Nor Conan O'Brien
NBC was apparently afraid to give Letterman The Tonight Show because they didn't think that pitching watermelons off the roof and haranguing Bryant Gumbel with a bullhorn would play at 11:30 at night. But Letterman proved able to upgrade his act. According to Bill Carter's book The Late Shift, Carson himself assured Letterman that hosting The Tonight Show wouldn't mean as much after Leno had damaged the brand, and that if NBC had treated him the way they'd treated Letterman, he'd have shown the network his ass. Thus encouraged, Letterman retained his distinctive acid-reflux personality while cutting it with a new degree of authority, a combination that made him king of late night until Leno sewed up his monopoly of all the TV sets in old folks' homes.
As for O'Brien — who still reads as the youngest of the late-night hosts, but is now older than Carson was when he got called up to the majors — he's been trying to find a way to accommodate his kind of college-humor-magazine silliness to the earlier hour, and the ride has not always been smooth. His premiere in his new slot was overloaded with too many filmed bits, and I suspect that Nerve readers lead the league when it comes to demanding the return of the Masturbating Bear. But his past seven months on the job have certainly provided more cause for hope than Leno's, either in the 11:30 slot or in his new role as a five-nights-a-week black hole in prime time.
5.) He's Not Andy Richter, Either — and We Like Andy Richter!
While everyone's up in arms about the royal screwing that Conan's is getting from NBC, can we have a thought for Andy Richter? Since leaving his old job as O'Brien's Late Night sidekick-announcer, Richter's jobs have included starring roles in a couple of funny, doomed sitcoms (Fox's Andy Richter Saves the Universe and Andy Barker, P.I., which was tied in a sack and thrown off a bridge by the geniuses at NBC). It must have been with mixed emotions that he agreed to return to Conan's side on The Tonight Show. Richter is a nice guy, and fun to watch. In return for his hard work and act of friendship, he's once again a bit player in a fiasco that is not of his making, but that will ensure his continued appearances in Howard Stern diatribes about show-business losers.
Meanwhile, even as Richter can't catch a break, Leno can't get held accountable for his years of inflicting mediocrity on a defenseless nation. What does it take for some shame to pierce this guy's shell of obliviousness? Leno is now officially the least pleasurable entertainer in the world to watch, because his need to be on-camera just seems like a neurotic itch. He worked out his deal to stink up NBC's prime-time schedule because, once he reached the age at which he'd agreed to retire, he found that the thought of not being on the air was unbearable. Subsequently, he's gone about recapturing his old slot as if he flat-out doesn't get that he's screwing over other people who thought they'd made a bargain in good faith. One might also ask why NBC wants so badly to please him. But to ask the question is to suggest that they have any brains or taste at all, which is to forget that these are the same people who wanted Leno more than they wanted David Letterman or Conan O'Brien in the first place.