Jay Leno Did Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Jay Leno terrified me as a child. I had a deep, visceral fear of the man without knowing anything about him beyond an errant clip of his show, caught when I was sneaking around watching TV in the middle of the night. It wasn’t his chin that did it, not quite. It was a general lack of humanity. Jay Leno exemplified the 80s LA night club comic as dancing robot. I couldn’t imagine Jay Leno sitting down and eating dinner, or going to a 7/11, or getting lost in Home Depot. If any one person could demonstrate the uncanny valley, it was him. His body language was just slightly wrong. The way he delivered a punchline was wrong. He felt like an animatronic character at Disneyland, saying “welcome aboard!” in exactly the same cadence no matter if you were an old woman or an ex-con in violation of parole. I could never shake the uncanniness.
As I got older and was made aware of his sizable car collection, I started having nightmares. They were always the same. I’m in Bakersfield in an alley behind a bar, waiting for my dad, inside checking out an insurance claim. He had been in there for hours, as he always was when he was out in the field. Normally I’d wait in the back seat, but today I just have to stretch my legs. Suddenly, a disturbingly whimsical car arrives in the alley. It’s painted a sickly, dripping red, and steam arises through perfectly white pipes that vary wildly in length and jut out in a thousand angles, like a circus tent built by Louis Wain. Invariably, Jay Leno steps out and stands in front of me. “I bet you couldn’t even start this car!” he says, as I call for my dad. “Come on, kiddo, let’s take a ride! Hehehe!” and we drive in a straight shot up the Grapevine until I wake up.
Anyway, last night was Jay Leno’s final episode as host of the Tonight Show. And I never got over those nightmares – at least not the uncanny vibe that presaged them. I like late night talk shows. I like the ritual, the pleasant background hum of someone telling me life is worthwhile enough to joke about. But I spent years trying to deny that Jay Leno existed. He was just upsetting. Sure, I thought Letterman deserved the job, and I laughed at the Bill Hicks bit about him (when I thought yelling and comedy were the same thing), but I didn’t avoid him out of self-righteousness. It was strictly his lack of selfhood.
So last night I figured I’d watch “The Tonight Show,” just to see if I had it all wrong, if my childhood anxiety was something I could dismiss. See if there was any pleasant background hum to be found here. I wasn’t expecting the show to be good, obviously. I only wanted to find proof that half-watching Jay Leno goof around was ever the affable bedtime ritual it was designed to be. It was the only episode I’ve ever sat through, and it was completely unwatchable.
The credits were obnoxious in their California tourism ad modernity. Stock shots of the most corporate parts of LA, and a nice clean shot of the Nokia logo. Then out comes Jay Leno. He shakes hands with the audience, and looks less like an elder statesman of comedy than he does an embattled governor up for reelection.
The monologue begins and it’s terrible, but in a unique way: it’s just a normal monologue. A rapid-fire stream of topical gags. “If [Justin Bieber], then [DUI], ergo [he’s old enough to drive???!!?!].” He’s stubbornly refusing to make this feel like his last show. It’s like he’s trying to hold on to it. He’s really savoring every last “in the papers today” throwback. He borders on pathetic here, if only because there’s no lateral move out of this job. There’s no other use for this skill set. Without it, he’ll be Lonesome Rhodes in an empty banquet hall with an applause machine.
Then there’s a pre-taped celebrity goodbye segment. Nobody involved seems to have a rapport with him. With Johnny Carson’s best guests, you got the sense they did alarming, illegal things together. There’s none of that playfulness with Jay Leno. Everybody comes off stilted and distant.
The show continues with its only interview: Billy Crystal, one of the most punishingly unfunny comedians on earth. He is a void. His stories are meaningless. They claim to be old friends but there’s no sign of it. Crystal does his usual talk show thing; a bunch of warmed over anecdotes he could just as easily have told on Ellen. “My friend Jay Leno over on NBC said…”
Finally there’s a musical number because there has to be, but it’s neither funny nor sentimental. It’s just “look at these celebrities who drove across town at 2 in the afternoon for you, Jay!” It’s nothing. Then there’s a Garth Brooks goodbye song. After this, Leno does an empathy grab.
He gets choked up. He’s strong for the union and he’s known loss as we have all known loss. And then Garth does “Friends In Low Places” to re-assert blue collar authenticity and the show is over.
Obviously the show was bad. I was always gonna find it bad. But what interested me was how short and half-assed it all was. When Johnny Carson retired, it was a huge monoculture spectacle. There were primetime specials about it, and everybody brought their A-game. This just seemed like a routine episode of a show starring an overachieving LA nightclub comic. And he barely made his presence known. If you excise Billy Crystal’s rambling, the celebrity cameos, the musical number, and the two Garth Brooks songs, then Jay Leno only had to talk for about 15 minutes.
And that’s admirable to a point. There was no spectacle, and there didn’t need to be. There were no attempts to perpetuate myth. But it was still awful. Jay Leno is irreparably broken. He staked his entire life on telling jokes, and he clearly never got good at it. All his attempts to be funny or charismatic came across like a mob boss trying to entertain his granddaughter. You could see the flop sweat, the nakedly desperate need for approval, the ill-fated attempts to leave behind a legacy.
And ultimately that was the finale’s saving grace: it was a very human failure, so that’s something.