Jay Leno's Un-Ironic Patriotism: The Most Controversial Man on TV Returns

If you want to identify the most controversial person in television, forget about Glenn Beck and Keith Olberman. The answer is obvious: Jay Leno.

The once and now returning host of NBC’s Tonight Show has incited hostility and outright hatred for many years, simply by virtue of being more commercially successful than rivals David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. In particular, fans of his competitors have derided Leno for being overly conventional and failing to challenge late-night viewers by pushing the boundaries of taste.

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That, however, has almost certainly been a primary reason for Leno’s success: he amuses viewers without overwhelming them with sensational material such as O’Brien’s masturbating bears and potty-mouthed dog and Letterman’s aggressive non sequiturs. Leno is clearly out to amuse, not to change the world, and that is exactly the sort of programming most people seem to want in that 11:35 time slot.

As a result, Leno returned to his Tonight Show helm last night after a hiatus of several months in which NBC tried moving him to primetime and shifting O’Brien from The Late Show at 12:35 a.m. to the Tonight Show at 11:35. As has been well-documented, the change was a predictable disaster both for NBC’s primetime ratings and for the Tonight Show. O’Brien toned down his comedy for the earlier audience, which didn’t work, and Leno could not make a nightly show consistently special enough to draw viewers at 10 p.m.

Thus O’Brien was given a gigantic golden parachute and sent on his way, and Leno was returned to his former perch at the Tonight Show. Last night’s show was vintage Leno, as if he had never left. That means, of course, that his detractors will remain unhappy and his audience will likely return over time.

Last night’s episode brought a good many curiosity seekers, with overnight ratings indicating nearly six million people watched the Tonight Show, nearly double the total for rival David Letterman’s Late Night, which drew 3.3 million. Although one must expect Leno’s ratings to decrease considerably, last night’s show certainly indicated that if you liked the Tonight Show before, you’ll like it now. And yes, if you disliked it before, your opinion is unlikely to change.

There were several references to Leno’s return and the controversy surrounding it, as was inevitable. These included a funny opening sequence with Jay as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz awakening after journey to a very strange place.

Leno then delivered the same type of monologue as usual. There were jokes about Tiger Woods, the Olympics, former president George W. Bush, former vice president Dick Cheney, Leno’s return to the Tonight Show, the Wall Street bailout, airplane ticket prices, Toyotas, and the like. The perspective of the humor was just left of center, as has been typical of Leno over the years.

One highlight: Leno mocked the California legislature for passing a statewide ban on swearing. There was also a brief, amusing video segment called The World’s Tightest Pants, the sort of thing often found on YouTube.

After the commercial break, Leno appeared in an extended video segment in which he went door-to-door in search of a new desk, trying out various post-monologue comedy bits at desks found in people’s homes, with their permission and bemusement. Here, too, Leno didn’t try anything ambitious or earthshaking, just amiably jokey.

After another break, Leno introduced his first guest of the night, actor/comedian Jamie Foxx. Foxx brought a great deal of energy, bouncing around the set and pumping up the audience with much enthusiastic cheerleading for Leno. Foxx even opened a bottle of champagne and gave it to the audience.

During the interview segment he congratulated Leno on his homecoming and made several other laudatory references to Leno’s return to the show. Leno seemed rather embarrassed by this attention, and tried to get the interview onto sounder footing with a conversation about Foxx’s family life and his fondness for actress Kirstie Alley.

The second guest, skier Lindsey Vonn, brought her Olympic gold medals and talked about her experiences at the Vancouver games. Vonn spoke appealingly about how her husband helps her keep her perspective when the pressure of competition threatens to overwhelm here. She was clearly nervous during the interview, and Leno asked good questions and made her feel more comfortable as the segment progressed. His skills as an interviewer were quite evident.

In the show’s final segment, musical guest Brad Paisley performed before a large backdrop painted as an American flag, and he sang a song praising the United States as a land of opportunity and a place that accommodates a wide variety of ethnic traditions, “American Saturday Night.” He also played the guitar surprisingly well (surprising to me, at least, as I had never seen him perform before).

That scene was emblematic of what makes Leno appealing to many people and a figure of hatred for many others. It’s difficult to imagine O’Brien or Letterman presenting such an unabashedly, un-ironic patriotic segment, and particularly on a special occasion such as last night. Leno’s attachment to bourgeois values and popular traditions derided by many as corny or even socially damaging are what make him both popular and controversial. If there is a culture war in the United States today, Leno and his rivals are at the forefront.

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