How Jay Leno Changed the Politics of Late Night



when I started hosting marijuana was illegal and you can smoke cigarettes any place you wanted I believe he did the greatest monologue ever and I think it was because of his political sensibility and the worst thing about losing this job I'm no longer cover NBC I'd have to sign up for Obamacare after 22 years as the host of The Tonight Show Jay Leno said goodbye to late night though he was no favorite of TV critics Leno held the top ratings spot for over two decades after succeeding the legendary Johnny Carson recent TV sat down with longtime Leno producer Dave Berg author of the book behind the curtain an insider's look at Jay Leno's Tonight Show to discuss lenez legacy of elevating politics and late-night talk Johnny Carson who of course is a legend the greatest there ever was he set the bar very high for all of us however Johnnie emphasized entertainers on his show I'm not saying he didn't have politico's from time to time he did but the emphasis was on entertainers well the strategy that we used to kind of expand and maybe get better ratings was to move beyond entertainers and I think that this is what distinguished Jay not only in the guests that he chose I mean basically we had every major presidential candidate from 1996 on but also in his monologue which he expanded it from Johnnie's with seven minutes and Jay expanded his to 14 minutes and added a lot of political humor he set the pace I believe he did the greatest monologue ever and I think it was because of his political Sensibility you talked about having presidential candidates the you guys were actually the first to get a sitting president when you had President Obama on can you talk a little bit about the story of how that happened five years before he became president I was watching him speak at the Democratic convention in Boston and that was in 2004 Kerry was the the Democratic candidate that year and and I had never heard of this unknown political Illinois and I thought oh my gosh this guy is the best speak I have seen since Ronald Reagan I'm not talking politics here I'm just talking about the ability to communicate and I was very impressed and the next day I started calling on his people to express an interest in getting him on the show now we did finally land him on the show as as an author the the audacity of hope' when he was a presidential candidate so when he did finally agree to appear as a president he had already been on he had already had a trust yet and it kind of a chemistry with Jay but nevertheless when he decided to appear on the show on his 59th day in office that was amazing because no other president had ever appeared on a late-night show it was actually considered unpresidential that was a huge moment and you know looking back at that why do you think it took so long for that to happen I mean do you think that politicians are kind of afraid of going on platforms like that because they're afraid of being made fun of I do and as I always told the political people actually we're much easier I'm not saying Jay didn't ask tough questions he did he certainly did but we weren't Meet the Press and Jays attitude about guests is he believed that that it was a family environment at the Tonight Show and and he actually acted as though guests were like guests in his house so he always said I'm not going to throw you a curve ball you don't have to worry I'm I will ask you a tough question I'll ask you this I'll ask you that but he never never asked gotcha questions so we were actually easier than Meet the Press it never seemed like he was really accepted among you know the comedic elite and here he is now he's going to get the Mark Twain humor award at the Kennedy Center this fall what do you think is so misunderstood about his success I think that the critics the Television Critics basically early on starting when Jay took over from Johnny Carson early on they said this guy doesn't have the chops he doesn't have what Johnny Carson has and by the way he's not cut from the same fabric as David Letterman it is so much more edgy and they are the ones that basically set the tone for for how J was perceived among if I may use the word among elitist not among the folks who live in the flyover States those wonderful flyover States but among the elitist who felt that J's humor was much too milquetoast actually I think J's approach was was exactly what it should be what you want to do is you want to tell jokes that appeal to a broad band of viewers we weren't narrowcasting we were trying to reach a wide group of people and I think J did that very successfully and I think the Mark Twain award is justification finally J gets the credit that he deserves and a lot of people you know would always try to tie a political label to him but you know because we have more of a libertarian audience do you think kind of that independent streak that he was more working-class he worked really hard I know you talked a lot about his work ethic in the book do you think that kind of came through the fact that he was just a little bit more independent and that's maybe why he broke through to such a larger audience I definitely do and again I think you could see it in his monologue jokes I think that resonated with people I really do the fact is in the last you know two three years none of the other late night hosts were doing Obama jokes well Jay felt well J happens to like President Obama but his feeling was you got to go after who's ever in power and he alone was doing jokes about Obama for a long time finally when Obamacare you know became the disaster that it was at least for a while the other host started following soon do you think that his willingness cuz I see it now with Kimmel yeah and a little bit with Fallon and Letterman they've kind of followed suit but do you think that that is kind of one of his main legacies as far as you know being an equal opportunity offender oh my gosh yes I mean I really think that distinguishes him and and yes if I understand your question properly there doesn't seem to be a healthy skepticism of those in power and that concerns me because late night is so influential especially among younger people I think yeah and you know there's also kind of this I guess you can call it a PC movement going on where you've seen a lot of comedians lately having to you know apologize for jokes do you how do you think that affects the material right or did it really come into play when he was crafting his monologue that was a big problem and I have to say that among the the comedy writers and comedians whether they were liberal a conservative they hate PC they do not like political correctness because that restricts them in their job and that was very damaging and it hurt a lot of jokes we had to sort of water down some of the jokes everybody did and and I think everyone suffers as a result you're you're missing SATA you're missing good satire when you look at who's out there now you have Kimmel you have Letterman as stepping down you have Colbert coming in now and now you have Jimmy Fallon who do you see kind of emerging as as that standard bearer of being the top dog I actually am a Jimmy Fallon guy and I like Jimmy Kimmel they're both really good I watched them both but Jimmy Fallon when he took over for Jay honestly I did not want to like him I didn't like the fact that Jay was you know being let go when he was doing so well but when I started watching a Fallon on a regular basis he won me over and I like him because he continues with that really positive upbeat attitude that that Jay represented and he has brought kind of a new perspective he has redefined late-night on his own terms now it's about comedy bits it's about performance the guests get involved they want to get involved Jimmy gets involved because he's so talented and he has done very well I would go so far as to call him the king of late-night he's going to be the guy to be that's my feeling

38 Replies to “How Jay Leno Changed the Politics of Late Night

  1. When Leno left The Tonight Show, I mourned the loss of late night television. Leno was the last guy who actually did a show for tv, and not a show for youtube. There's really no reason to watch Jimmy Fallon, bc he is making a show for youtube. Leno was host of the tonight show, actually putting on a comedy show for the people watching that night. Whereas Jimmy is hosting the youtube show, and putting on a show for high school kids to watch on their iPhones the next day, assuming youtube recommends the video to them.

  2. Late night host have come and gone and when they leave they leave a legacy, something that sets them aside from the rest, and here you have these people talking about Jay Leno like he was this innovative force in late night. Years from now no one will remember him because he never did anything original and he always played it safe.

  3. I still give credit to Leno for having Ron Paul on his show, but Leno's reputation of douche baggery when it comes to the Letterman and Conan situations make it hard for me to like him.  Also he's not funny.

  4. I'm so glad to hear about the Mark Twain prize going to Jay Leno. Jay was my generation… Johnny Carson was an old fuddy duddy, someone my parents watched. As Leno was let go, I felt sad… And, oddly, old. I have always loved Jimmy Fallon on SNL, then to his own show. Frankly, I was surprised at how talented he truly is. When he took over the Tonight Show, I thought, hmm… Well, he has been absolutely phenomenal. Even better than Jimmy Kimmel, who was my fav. I love how Fallon is relatable, authentic, a consumate professional, upbeat & playful, and genuinely showcases his guests. That being said… Yikes, some of it is too juvenile for me. I enjoy late night talk shows immensely, and appreciate how Fallon has mixed up the format. Especially with the very funny comedic skits. The best mood to fall asleep to, laughter :D!

  5. If you wan to watch top flight comedy which gives conservatives a good shake, go back and start watching "Last Man Standing" starring Tim Allen (there are 3 seasons in the can — available online at Netflix and elsewhere).  A half hour (21 minute) series, it's unlike any other comedy show on television — it is devoid of liberal bias.  And the funniest comedy since the Bill Cosby show.

    BTW, in the second season, the progressive producers reverted to the liberal ploy of making any conservative into a bigoted rube.  It's a jarring switch and pretty much lacking much humor.  But a few episodes into the season, they realized their mistake and went back to the winning formula.

  6. I don't care what everybody says I've always loved Jay Leno, esspecially his hard work ethic and equal opportunity jokes. I also agree that Jimmy Fallon has surpassed my expectations. 

  7. Leno is a superb monologue comic, but we stopped watching him for several years ago when his political "jokes" were far harsher on Republicans than Democrats.  Yes, he'd make jokes about Obama, but they lacked bite and were over trivial matters.  Not so with his GOP jokes.

    We tried — we really tried — to stay with him, but it was just too damn irritating.  

    Yet oddly enough, when he was told he was getting canned, in that last year on the air, his mix of political jokes became MUCH more balanced (apparently we weren't the only ones irritated.  We started to again watch him in his final months, and once again enjoyed the monologues.

    BTW, the BEST part of the Leno show was not the monologues, but rather his weekly "Headlines" skit.  Unparalleled delights — every segment a gem.  

    Thank Goodness for DVR's — we would snag that "Headline" show one Tuesday night, and the next night fast-forward to the salient "Headlines" part.  Never did we watch the rest of the show with guests.  Awful waste of time.

  8. The best decision NBC made was giving the job to Leno over Letterman.  And the ratings proved it.  Screw what the critics say, they are irrelevant, all that matters is what the audience/customers say.

  9. To those still whining about Conan consider this: You're #1 in your job. You're making mad money for your company. Your boss comes in says "you're doing a great job" but he's going to give the job to a younger, unproven guy for no reason. You don't bitch about it. You publicly approve this transition and gracefully step out of the way. And then the new guy falls flat on his face and your boss wants you back. That's what happened to Jay. 
    And the reason he's hated is because the guy is a workaholic and people are jealous of his success. And in fact Jay has been more edgy than the elitists give him credit for. He's had Jim Norton on, he's done politically incorrect jokes, racial humor… he just keeps the cringe humor to a low ebb. And yes, he was the only one going after Obama. He kept it fair.

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