The king of late-night comedy is back. Jay Leno has been mocked, vilified and berated in this NBC late-night debacle, when the network foolishly juggled Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien’s spots in an attempt to change up the late night schedules and honor a long-standing expectation that O’Brien would eventually take over The Tonight Show.
Unfortunately for both O’Brien and Leno, this change of schedule predictably bombed. O’Brien attempted to tone down his often crass style for an earlier time and lost much of his appeal. A lot of his following is based on “pushing the envelope” and a cult of personality that doesn’t typically work for mainstream fare. Leno’s 10 pm show, while more palatable, was vying for primetime attention with late-night fare doesn’t exactly hold high-ratings promise.
NBC saw the writing on the wall, gave O’Brien a multi-million-dollar payout, and put Jay Leno is back in the driver’s seat of the Tonight Show, with the same jokey amiability that he has been mocked for by more elitist viewers.
But here’s the thing – Leno is safe. He’s not out to change the world, and he doesn’t think that everybody else is an idiot. He comes across as friendly, politically moderate, and completely believable. No matter where we stand politically, religiously, socially – as Americans we’ve learned to laugh at ourselves. Most of us are uncomfortable in a situation where the only person worthy of derision is those different from us, in the way that O’Brien and Letterman usually approach comedy.
Leno has everyone from Michael Moore to Sarah Palin on his show, and approaches all of his guests from pro-American country star Brad Paisley to openly gay Adam Lambert with dignity, respect, and of course, his signature amicable jokiness.
Let the critics deride Leno for not taking enough risks or being edgy enough. At 11:35 on weeknights, most Americans are ready to pull up a chair for a good-natured laugh with him, which is a better way to spend our time than the innuendo and crude jokes we get from other sources.