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