Jay Leno: The Worn Paisley Comforter of Television

Why the man who’s ousting Conan O’Brien isn’t funny — and doesn’t have to be.

Back when I was in middle school, I used to watch Jay Leno with my parents. (Yeah, I know — I can hear the boos and jeers already.) On most weeknights I settled in to watch the introductory monologue, occasionally chuckling at a well-timed joke. I hated the “Jaywalking” bits, though; publicly humiliating people just seemed mean-spirited and unfunny. But I loved when people sent in errors in newspapers and advertisements. (After all, who cares about proofreaders’ feelings?) I couldn’t wait for those bits every week, priming my laugh before he even read the card or made the obligatory snarky comment.

Many years later, when I was in high school, I decided sleep was for suckers and stayed up all hours watching the small television in my room. This was when I discovered Conan O’Brien, whom I thought was deadly funny and deadly handsome. While I had mixed feelings about Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, I loved most of his comedy bits — such as “If They Mated,” the Masturbating Bear and Horny Manatee, and Pimpbot 5000. Of course, I can’t argue that I suddenly became a television connoisseur in those years; I watched buckets of both good and bad television, including a few episodes of the short-lived MTV soap opera Spyder Games.

Fast-forward 10 more years (yikes), and I can’t say I’ve watched any late night talk shows in a very long time, even when Conan took over “The Tonight Show” in June. So it was with a mixture of mild disappointment and apathy that I stumbled across the Conan/Jay brouhaha over at NBC. In case you’ve somehow missed the grenades lobbed from both ends, a recap: Conan was chosen back in 2004 to host “The Tonight Show” in 2009. Leno was bumped from “The Tonight Show,” which he had led to a top spot in the ratings, and moved his act to a new primetime show on NBC. Seven months later, NBC executives decided they wanted to move Leno back to 11:35 p.m. — the traditional start time for “The Tonight Show” — and push Conan’s “Tonight Show” back to 12:05 a.m. Conan replied that they could go screw themselves, and eventually NBC paid a $45 million dollar settlement to buy out Conan’s contract. Oh, and guess who’s going to be taking over again as the “Tonight Show” host?

Instead of bowing out quickly and quietly, Conan decided to tell the public exactly what he thought of this move through obvious references to NBC’s asshattery on his show. And as his fans exuberantly rallied and created Facebook groups to support him, and as his remaining number of shows diminished, his comedy sketches grew more and more emboldened. One such sketch involved him dressing a Bugatti Veyron (the world’s most expensive car) as a mouse while chortling that NBC had to pick up the tab for the bit.

Video hosted by Gawker.tv’s “Late Night Wars” site;
the Bugatti Veyron mouse appears about halfway through the clip.

Conan later admitted his break-the-bank stunts had been fake, but they sure were entertaining to watch. Also, another sketch re-introduced the Masturbating Bear, which had been banned from “The Tonight Show.”

Video hosted by Gawker.tv’s “Late Night Wars” site.

The public became polarized between Conan and Leno, though support on the Internet overwhelmingly favored O’Brien and his “Team Coco.” And while most of the debate amounted to a shouting match of “Leno sucks” or “Conan sucks,” there have been plenty of people also expressing bitter disappointment at NBC’s handling of the whole situation.

As often happens when a show’s about to be taken off the air, Conan’s last few shows received huge ratings. His final show drew 10.3 million viewers, which was a vast improvement over the disappointing numbers that made NBC want to oust him from the 11:35 p.m. slot.

It might look like a simple case of the public not watching or appreciating a good show until it’s gone, à la “Firefly” or “Arrested Development,” but I don’t think “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” was just a good show that nobody watched. Instead, it represents a dying art form: The late night television talk show. I never really watched Conan’s “Tonight Show” (and neither did most of you) but my guess is that while there were a few funny sketches, the decades-old, constrictive formula of the late night talk show did more to inhibit Conan’s humor rather than inspire it.

Most younger viewers (“Gen Y” or whatever we’re called) watch a different late night television show format: “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.” Those shows are consistently funnier, and they, much like The Onion, use satire that leans left (way, way left in the case of “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report”) to get ratings. Instead of tuning in to Leno or Letterman to see what’s happening in the world, we turn to Jon Stewart to simultaneously provide us with the news, entertain us, and reaffirm our cultural and political values.

So how, then, did Leno manage to be number one in late night for so long? It’s because Leno is the worn paisley comforter of television. On the one hand, he’s warm and familiar. On the other, he’s rather drab and unremarkable as a comedian. When people turn on Leno, they’re not looking for humor that is fresh or original or surprising. They’re looking for a sense of community, and they’re looking to chuckle once or twice before they fall asleep in their nice, warm beds. The next day, they will trudge to their dreary office jobs where they might be fired at any given moment because of the crummy economy. But Leno is a safe and familiar face on television that makes people feel all right with the world. In fact, it’s not only his face that’s familiar: He’s trundling out all his old sketches, including “Jaywalking” and silly advertising mistakes.

Laughter has only a tenuous connection to humor. Instead, it’s mostly about social interaction, according to Robert Provine, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. “You’re 30 times more likely to laugh when you’re with other people than when you’re alone — if you don’t count simulated social environments like laugh tracks on television,” Provine has said. He believes laughter is an instinctive form of social bonding, which is why laughter is so contagious.

The second, throwaway part of his quote — the “simulated social environments” — is particularly relevant here. While laugh tracks on sitcoms simulate a social environment to some degree, nothing signals “community” to the human brain better than a live studio audience. We viewers at home hear all sorts of laughter, which sounds much more human than a looped audio tape. And hearing other people laugh triggers our brains to make us laugh, too. We bond — not only with our husband or wife beside us but with the virtual community of individuals watching Leno — and the laughter also releases dopamine in our brains to make us feel good. Leno makes people feel warm and happy and part of a greater whole without having to be really funny or original.

The worn, warm blanket that is Jay Leno is perfect for the “Tonight Show” format. Conan will simply have to start over and find a format that will actually allow him to be funny and original again — and hope Team Coco follows him there.

Article © 2010 by Melissa Reddish