It’s easy to remember the time before Jay Leno became the marquee name on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno: That was when Leno seemed like the strongest stand-up comic alive. Before taking on the burden of The Tonight Show, Leno was a loose, edgy scrapper, a rangy guy with a head shaped like a canoe, and out of whose pursed, small mouth came big, big laughs. He’d amble onto David Letterman’s NBC show with a wink and a grin, and after a barrage of funny observations, would work himself up into a pseudo-snit, in a bit that Jay and Dave came to call ”What’s your beef?” ”What’s my beef?!” Jay would roar with mock-maliciousness, and, frowning with faux- furiousness, he’d take off after dumb government policies, or the idiocies of showbiz, or whatever.
It was always a killer moment, and in his book about the talk-show wars, The Late Shift, writer Bill Carter says that this early-’80s ”Letterman-Leno act began to generate a lot of good press..(then-NBC Entertainment president Brandon) Tartikoff began to include (Leno) on a mental list he was assembling, the one he figured he would eventually have to call on whenever it happened that Johnny Carson finally decided to leave the arena.”
We all know what happened — Carson announced his impending retirement (or, depending on whom you believe, was pushed) from The Tonight Show in 1992, and, after some intense in-house wrangling over whether Leno or Letterman would succeed Carson, Leno got the job. Instantly, he seemed ill at ease as Johnny’s heir. Where Old Jay might shamble over to Dave’s desk wearing a battered motorcycle jacket, New Jay wore designer suits that made him look both uncomfortable and beefier than he really was. Old Jay would test jokes out for months on the road until he perfected the plainspoken aperçus he sprang on Letterman. New Jay had to pound out a fresh monologue every night, and even with his own awesome gag-writing talent, a hand-picked staff, and frequent club appearances to try out material, his Tonight Show opening moments often seemed like hollow parodies of Johnny on an off-night.
Lately there’s been some stir that Leno has come into his own as a host — when he took The Tonight Show to New York in May 1994, his ratings rose encouragingly, and when he got back to Burbank, he decided to alter the studio set to give it more of a nightclub feel. His suits have become a little less formal, and he’s let his hair grow out and up into a jiggly, squiggly mop reminiscent of Elvis Presley. But watching Leno nightly over the past few weeks — including his second stint in Manhattan — you couldn’t escape the feeling that, rather than coming into his own, Leno has transformed himself into something entirely different: The former Strongest Stand-Up Alive has opted to become the Bionic Talk-Show Host, trying to overpower us with mechanized affableness.
It’s certainly true that Leno has opened up the monologue enough to permit some of his old sting — commenting on rocker David Crosby’s recent liver-transplant problems, Leno asked, ”Did you know his old liver had a street value of over $3,000?” Now, that’s a joke Johnny never would have told because (1) he would have thought it was too mean, and (2) he probably wouldn’t know who David Crosby was. But most of the time, his material consists of wishy-washy bipartisan political yuks. Leno’s attempts to create his own repertoire of post-monologue sketch characters in the Carson tradition — exercise guru Iron Jay; a Zorro takeoff called Jayro — are depressingly unfunny. Where Letterman permits his mood to dictate the flow of a show, Leno is always ”up,” always grinning, which lends him an air of insincerity that’s not even deserved: I mean, he may not be all that funny anymore, but he is sincere — he just looks like he’s trumping it up, under orders from the network or something. And I don’t even want to get into his ongoing awkwardness with asking a guest a question and then listening to the answer.
The only time I’ve seen Leno regain his Old Jay looseness was when Keenen Ivory Wayans was a recent guest. He and Leno started reminiscing about days spent playing cheesy comedy clubs, and Leno came alive, chuckling with unfeigned merriment, tossing in anecdotes that were funny not because they had a punchline, but because they were true. For a brief moment, Jay Leno was once again the strongest stand-up alive, even though he was sitting behind a desk. C