Once again, Jay Leno has been pushed out of his job hosting The Tonight Show. That cackling you hear in the air is the sound of TV entertainment types in L.A. enjoying themselves.
Leno was pushed out before but came back and, as many see it, he pushed his replacement, Conan O’Brien, out of The Tonight Show. This time a comeback seems unlikely. After all, NBC has announced that Jimmy Fallon, Leno’s replacement in February, 2014, will host the show from New York, not Los Angeles. It seems unlikely that Leno would leave his L.A. home and car collection to haunt Fallon’s endeavours in New York. But Leno’s devotion to The Tonight Show can never be underestimated. It’s the job he wanted, the job he embarrassed himself to lobby for, a job that defines him.
If he can be persuaded to retire forever from the show, good riddance. And you can keep your Jimmy Fallon while you’re at it.
The late-night talk show with its rigid format – the host, the monologue, the desk, the side-kick, the band – is an American invention, one that flourished in the quick evolution of network TV. It has deep roots in the U.S. entertainment racket, yet the format has never really flourished anywhere else. The template was set decades ago in U.S. TV studios and, although most of television has changed much, the talk-show template remains the same. It’s time to throw it out.
Now, while Jay Leno is still the most-watched late-night host, NBC is moving him out because it thinks Fallon will do better with younger viewers over the next few years. That wouldn’t be difficult. The number of people under the age of 30 who actually sit and watch The Tonight Show (NBC, 11:35 p.m.) from beginning to end could probably fit into the show’s Burbank studio.
One major reason the young audience has deserted The Tonight Show is that rigid format. And a major reason why the format has remained rigid is Leno himself. Leno has been a black hole of nothingness on the show and in the genre.
Only one significant shift has taken place in the late-night format over the decades, and that shift was from Johnny Carson to David Letterman. Both Carson and Letterman are specific types in the American popular culture. They come from the boonies. They have an irreverent attitude toward showbiz and urban sophistication. They represent honesty while surrounded by fakery.
Such types have long existed in American storytelling. Carson was at his best when casting a cold, comic eye on Nixon’s America and the 1970s culture. Letterman has always been at his best ridiculing show business and the Republican Party. Both relied on their outsider status to do this.
The shift was that while Carson’s act was essentially stage-based but on TV, Letterman brought an ironic self-consciousness about TV to his show. His relationship with the camera was very different from Carson’s – he played to it, toyed with it, took it outside to wander the streets of Manhattan. Irony was in his DNA, while small-town skepticism of big-city practices was in Carson’s DNA.
What did Jay Leno bring to all of this? Nothing. Zero. Lacking the irony of Letterman and the coolness of Carson, Leno is a joke machine, a robotic peddler of semi-witticisms delivered so fast and in such quantity that some of them generate laughter. While Carson was chilly with his studio audience (and almost everyone else), Leno embraced the audience, often seeming a bit desperate for love. But he never moved the late-night format forward. After his two decades, The Tonight Show is stultified.
Based on the evidence of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the new guy on The Tonight Show is not likely to change the format in any way. Unlike Carson and Letterman, Fallon is an urban type, one steeped in showbiz, especially the comedy and music worlds. His history is in Saturday Night Live and his dead-on music parodies. He’s fresh-faced and considerably more energetic than Leno, but his style is anchored in the usual template. He’s a creature of establishment showbiz, and while he can mock that world, he does it more with affection than caustic skepticism.
That cackling sound from entertainment types in L.A. is echoing for two reasons. First, Leno was never much liked in the business. Second, a lot of people understand that too much attention is being paid to late-night manoeuvres by the networks. The format is old, the genre is dead already.
Also Airing Tonight
Peep Show (SuperChannel, 9 p.m.) is back. Now into its eighth season, the droll, dopey British sitcom manages to be adult content while staying extremely childish. If you’re not familiar with it, mainly it’s about Mark (David Mitchell) and Jeremy (Robert Webb), flat-mates for years and years, as their twenties pass them and not much growing up gets done. The trick is in the voiceovers. The characters talk but we hear their innermost, sarcastic and demented thoughts. At this point the key plot point involves Mark, the seemingly stable, adult one, trying to persuade his some-time girlfriend Dobby (Isy Suttie) to move in with him. She’s a bit deranged, too.
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