Johnny Carson's Head Writer: Late Night Comics Protect Obama
This week The Tonight Show with new host Jimmy Fallon returned to its storied birthplace in New York’s 30 Rockefeller Center. Jimmy is talented and likable and closest to my old boss, Johnny Carson, doing characters and sketches.
Once again NBC ditched Jay Leno for a trophy comic. This despite Jay’s consistent ratings dominance. NBC hopes Fallon will hold Leno’s audience and not become Conan 2. The current late night landscape is populated by 19 comedy/talk shows. Leno was the Everyman, the flyover fave. He was middle of the road, less ironic than David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. The Caesar salad to their kale. And the only one willing to launch comedic drones over the current West Wing.
His competitors haven’t exactly hammered President Barack Obama, hardly a smidgen. The paucity of Obama jokes is the dog that didn’t bark. Like their news anchor counterparts, our hosts go gentle into that late night, despite the target-rich environment of this administration. With his pen and phone, our selfie-absorbed president is one whacked uncle away from appointing himself Supreme Leader.
It isn’t that they’ve abstained from attacking Democrats. Bill Clinton got savaged during his eight-year run and we can expect torrential yuks if and when Hillary declares. But they’re tongue-tied when it comes to roughing up the present POTUS.
The only plausible explanation for their timidity is a fear of being labeled racist. That’s unfortunate. What rankles some Obama critics isn’t the color of his skin. It’s the thinness. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh get under it.
Leno mocked both sides of the political divide, but like Johnny Carson never exposed his personal politics. Carson felt his mission was to entertain, not proselytize. It may have been Johnny’s Midwest roots that considered any mention of politics or religion impolite. It also made business sense not to offend a large chunk of his viewers.
Though they later became friends, Johnny initially declined an invitation to play tennis at the White House with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. He told me he didn’t like to be photographed with politicians, that he once posed for a photo with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and later regretted it.
The networks salivate for the precious 18 - 49 age viewer but weirdly ignore the political demo. Gallup’s numbers show that 38 percent of Americans identify as conservatives, 23 percent as liberals, and 34 percent as moderates. In other words, 72 percent of Americans aren’t liberal. Yet network news anchors list to the left.
In 1996, TV executive Roger Ailes saw an opening and created the wildly successful Fox News Channel. In January’s cable news ratings, FNC came out on top with its shows taking the top 14 spots in total viewers. CNN had its third worst ratings month in its history. CNN lost 39 percent of its total primetime audience from the same month in 2013 and 35 percent of its primetime audience in the 25 - 54 age demo.
The CNN and MSNBC talking heads are reliable Obama hackolytes whose ratings tank because they’re in the tank for Obama. They just can’t help themselves. Ideology trumps business acumen. Ailes also foresaw the potential for satirical humor that tilts right. Seven years ago, FNC unleashed the zany Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld. Its format is a rotating panel of hip young comics, mostly conservative or libertarian, coupled with FNC reporters and media figures willing to bare their inner goofball. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is a regular. Despite its 3 a.m. time slot, in January Red Eye beat every CNN show in total viewers.
Jerry Seinfeld was attacked because most of the guest comics on his web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, were white males. Seinfeld responded that gender or race-based quotas and “p.c. nonsense” shouldn’t be imposed on comedy. That same p.c. sentiment has infected late night cue cards to Obama’s benefit.
Comedy should be a p.c.-free zone. Imagine what might happen if FNC’s mother ship, the Fox Network, were to hire a Greg Gutfeld to compete at the 11 o’clock hour with, say, fair and balanced monologues. That’s assuming none of the current late night guys poaches the Leno playbook and gets there first.
I’m an optimist who believes the dribble glass is half full. But I won’t be convinced until Jon Stewart eggs Eric Holder’s house. Wouldn’t that be ironic.
Mr. Siller was the longtime head writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."