"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Probably the Only Pop Culture Post

I was reading last night when I had a strange tickle in my head reminding me that late night TV became suddenly hackier.  Jay Leno was back on the Tonight Show.  Although, if pressed, I would say it doesn't matter, I found myself caring a lot about the Conan/Jay imbroglio, as a matter of taste, principle and class.  Mostly taste, though- it isn't making a new point to say that Leno is boring and lazy, and that when your comedy consists of typos, misprints and people not knowing who won the Civil War, you aren't a comedian as much as a presenter.

But anyway, because I did care about that, I turned on NBC to see what exactly the new Leno show was going to be.  It was pretty lame, of course, though Jay did seem to be making a point of not making a big deal out of it.   I got bored quickly, and flipped back and forth between him and Letterman.

Jamie Foxx was Leno's first guest, and it was an embarrassment.  I guess I always vaguely liked Jamie Foxx, mostly because of the great Collateral, but have never really thought about him.  He came running out with a mic, imploring the crowd to yell "Back!" after he prompted them with "WELCOME!"  Crowd interaction is nice, and he seemed pleasant, but it all seemed so forced, and soulless, and a cringe-inducing amount of hype about something that everyone kind of wanted to ignore.

Contrast that with Letterman and his guest, the great Bill Murray.   Murray was goofy, in shorts and a spangled ice-skater's top and a Russian hat, with a bad leg in a sling descended from the ceiling.  That sounds over-the-top, but he did it with his sardonic, subtle dead-pan, and it was oddly not at all distracting or easy.  I am not just comparing guests- Murray is incomparable- but the style of the shows.  On Dave you had two legends who have gracefully aged, embracing their quirks, comfortable in their own skins.  There was an air of comfort and mutual respect.  It was almost like watching two old friends.

My point is this: is such an atmosphere even remotely imaginable in the blow-dried promotion machine of Jay Leno's show?   Is there any respect or warmth between guest and host, outside of their duties as interviewer and showman?  I think that is the difference between the two hosts- one is a comedian, all personality, for good and ill, fine with being cranky, unable to be anything but himself.  The other is a marketer, seemingly a mashhup of committee-thinking, the bottom-line brought to life, a Burbank golem.

If you need any further proof of the baseness of Jay Leno, his guests this week include Sarah Palin and Brett Favre.  To paraphrase LA Confidential, a movie whose take on artifice is an excellent presage of Leno, I wouldn't watch that for all the whiskey in Ireland.


  1. 1) Please comment about pop culture with great frequency. I feel so much less ignorant than when I read your posts about Yemen.

    2) I have always been struck at how profoundly bad Jay Leno is at his job. Yes, somehow he managed to make a success of his hosting gig at The Tonight Show, which says more about the taste level of the average American viewer (hint: not good) than about his talent.

  2. Dan, I'm always loathe to criticize the taste of average Americans, since I am not exactly all Proust and Charlie Rose myself. But I think what Jay does is allow people to luxuriate in the comfort of cheap and easy laughs, which are weirdly often directed at the people he courts. I mean, the "Jaywalking" bits are attacks at the low-brow and uncultured (but probably more the result of people being nervous they are on tv, I always want to scream). The "Headlines" are just common people making a mistake. There is something base and vile about him. I think he panders to the worst in us. Dave has the reputation of being mean, but it seems to me that most of the time he goes after the powerful. Strange the the "highbrow elitist" Letterman is the more authentically populist.

    Of course, if it later turns out that Jay has been doing a vast performance art piece in which is mocks the people who are funding his lifestyle, then I will take it all back.

  3. And, sadly, Conan is better, funnier, smarter, and nicer than all of the,