Jay Leno and the cult of mediocrity
The first major battle of my highly embattled adolescence broke out when I was 12 or 13 and involved whether or not I would be allowed to stay up to watch The Tonight Show on school nights. I was a budding comedy nerd, recently hooked on Premium Blend-era Comedy Central and its Saturday Night Live reruns, and late-night TV was simply the next frontier. Tense bilateral talks eventually produced a compromise: I could stay up for the monologue every night. That was enough for me, spellbound as I was by the idea that there was a guy who could walk onto a stage five nights a week and spend ten minutes making people laugh about what was going on in the world. It would be a little while longer before I understood that the jokes were the work of an entire writing staff, and longer still before I realized that there were people who were far better at telling them than Jay Leno.
I go back and forth between thinking that this perfectly encapsulates Leno’s appeal—that his anemic brand of self-satisfied chin-wagging quote-unquote comedy is geared towards no one so much as 12-year-olds who don’t know any better—and feeling that no, no, I should be ashamed of even my preteen self for having been suckered by this chucklehead, that I am marked for life, that I’ll never outrun my past as a survivor of the world’s most boring cult.
Here’s what we know: tonight, Jay Leno will host The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for the 4,160th time. Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks will be his guests. He’ll make a joke or two at NBC’s expense. He’ll introduce a highlight reel of clips from throughout his 22-year tenure as host. He’ll say an emotional farewell and wish his successor luck. On Monday, February 17th, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon will debut from Studio 6B in New York City.
Here’s what we don’t know: whether or not this is a movie we’ve seen before.