Monday, January 18, 2010

TV: Jay Leno Vs. The Rest

I am a Jay Leno fan. I was a fan of Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and George Carlin. I still am a fan of Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld and, although he's largely gone from the public conscious these days, David Brenner. I enjoy Steven Wright, Lee Mack and I think Lewis Black is consistently funny, although not as funny as the funniest man alive, Billy Connolly. Those are my comedic sensibilities.

Not David Letterman. Not Conan O'Brien.

My comedy is verbal. Set-ups, punch-lines and jokes. I'm not big on sight gags and I think stupid (fill in the blank) tricks are ... stupid. And stupidity isn't funny. Now, I know YouTube has made a business (according to Mark Cuban, a bad business) out of videos of stupidity. And America's Funniest Videos have been going on forever, although fading now that people can get their acting-silly videos on YouTube anytime.

My theory about the popularity of Letterman and then O'Brien in the collegiate crowd is that a great number of collegians watching TV around the midnight hour are either drunk or buzzed or both. In that state, verbal comedy is wasted. But dropping watermelons off roofs? Sticking people in velcro suits against walls of velcro? Big-breasted women with metal bikinis running grinders against their, er, outstanding assets? Hilarious. In the sober light of the following day, Hunh?

Look, Leno is not perfect. At the best of times, Leno would fawn over the worst artistic excesses of actors and actresses out stumping for horrible work. He fell in love with his own brand of stupidity, showing American youth as completely clueless (although NOBODY could be as clueless as some of his putative university-educated Jaywalk All-Stars. Always thought some were bad thespians). But he did a monologue every night, two, three, five times longer than Letterman and twice as long as Conan. When he was yakking with somebody he shared interests with, he'd light up with joy at doing a job he really, really loved. He did great with kids and octogenarians. He was interested in his guests even when they didn't love cars or weren't long-time vets of the comedy circuit. Or at least he faked it.

Letterman wasn't. He wasn't interested enough in learning about what the guest was on to promote. Ever. Sure, there WERE guests he was interested in. And those made for good TV. But he knew he wasn't really much of a comic and he didn't let that stop him in any way. He created a show about other people doing comedic schtick. He was like a general manager of a successful sports franchise. He managed rather than performed. And if he gave the college crowd enough easy-for-besotten-brains pratfalls, he could be successful. And he was. But he has always been guest-driven watching. If the guest was somebody you wanted to watch, you did. Otherwise, why bother? He wasn't interested in the vast majority, why should you?

Conan took the Letterman model and ran with it. Unlike Letterman who had a decent stage act before coming to Late Night TV, Conan was a writer of cartoons. He thought visually and almost all of his comedic is visually-driven. Not all of stuff follows directly on the schtick model Letterman perfected. He was willing to go with clever lines ... providing they were given with some semblance of a visual cue. Cut to Conan for a shudder of the body and attempt to shake that great red shank of straw he calls hair. THEN the joke. In some ways, Conan tries to drive the middle lane between Letterman and Leno. That's cutting it awfully close and, in the final analysis, the fact that's Conan's not a comedian by training, is why he comes across as silly more often than funny. And silly is just a more polite way of saying stupid. And you know how I feel about that.

In a way, it's too bad Conan fails at being actually funny. He's the best interviewer of the three, although he has a limited range of who he can interview. Oddball celebrities outside the normal entertainment media spectrum are like black holes to Conan, whereas Leno loves them. And makes them entertaining interviews.

Leno's pre-news show was disappointing. First, he tried to break the Yogi-ism. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. He SHOULD have done the Tonight Show at ten, rather than trying to do a nightly Saturday Night Live. His name was on the show, he shouldn't have surrendered huge chunks of it to people not named Jay Leno. The "Earn Your Plug" segment was simply Stupid Actor Tricks and we ALL know how much I think of anything that starts, "Stupid..." And the car-race segment was the single worst use of TV time in history. Wasn't bad. Just wasn't... anything. A moving test pattern. Plus, there seemed to be a nasty edge to Leno that I didn't see before. Nothing overt, just a feeling. The interviews were more kvetching than interesting, bland when not kvetching. The only thing after the monologue and certain Tonight Show-retained bits that was successful was the ten@ten thing. It was awkward, but funny for being awkward, what with the delay in communicating, even if the quizzee was within spitting distance of the studio. I'd bet a lot of the responses were scripted, but some weren't and there were legitimate laughs each night.

I'm not displeased at all that Leno's headed back to familiar territory. I haven't been watching Conan except on nights where I want to see a specific guest. I'll record Leno schedule unseen, knowing I'll get a good half-hour, if not more. I think the various media people and the assembled Late Night community that has had the long knives out for Leno are wrong. Besides having agendas aplenty and most of the critics being former drunken university followers of Letterman, the Leno jihad is nauseating.

Mark Evanier has a very interesting essay on the whole thing at his blog today. He sums it up pretty well. I would have sent you there at the beginning of this, but there would have been a good chance you might not have come back. It's that good.

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