A Theory of Jay.

What, exactly, does Jay Leno mean? There is not a great deal of literature on the subject. Of the two late-night TV hosts, David Letterman has provoked by far the larger quantity of media-critic blather. If Leno is talked about, it is either as a vehicle for upper-level industry gossip (notably the white-knuckle corporate roller-coaster ride of Bill Carter’s TheLateShift), or as the plebeian-comedian yardstick by which Letterman’s aristocratic qualities and flaws are measured. Leno has just celebrated his 1,000th show; he recently issued an autobiographical volume titled LeadingWithMyChin. But it’s Letterman who still gets the cover articles in glossy magazines, who precipitates symposia at the Museum of Television and Radio, and who is broadcast live at midnight to an uncomprehending cult following in Germany. Even Letterman’s failure seems more interesting than Leno’s success.

Letterman is certainly the more obvious heir to the late-night tradition embodied by Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. On his old NBC LateNight show, he was a perfect incarnation of the fast-witted, skeptical, coolly disaffected man in the box. His skill lay not in delivering jokes or talking to guests, but in projecting an attitude, setting a tone. The peculiarly American institution of LateNight seems to date back to the dyspeptic rants of Walter Winchell, who manufactured a newspaper column and then a radio show from conversation around his table at the Stork Club. American mass culture has always left a space for these mildly corrosive personalities.

But when Letterman moved to CBS, the space mysteriously closed. He basked in hype; he repeated himself; he fell behind in the ratings; he began to wear a most un-Carson-like “please-watch-me” look. He recently defeated Leno in the ratings war with a “commercial-free” show that brought back some of the zaniness of his early NBC shows; but the very urge to repeat the NBC success showed signs of increasing desperation. (A few weeks ago in the New York Times, Bill Carter recalled the halcyon days when Letterman used to pull wacky stunts such as translating the whole show into Spanish. Soon after, Letterman offered various lame comedy bits dubbed into Spanish.) Suddenly, Leno looks better by comparison. The man who acted like a buffoon when he first took over the TonightShow now has at least a hint of the sang-froid that made Carson and Paar irresistible.

Conventional wisdom has it that Leno’s show bested Letterman’s on the strength of NBC’s prime time lineup. To accept this theory, you have to believe that viewers have their televisions fanatically cemented on NBC day and night. A chilling picture of the national mind, but false: Viewers obviously punch the remote more spastically than ever, prompting the embattled networks to invent corporate identities and theorize imaginary “loyal audiences.” Incessant channel-surfing has made a late-night war inevitable. (Witness Garry Shandling’s wheedling sign-off to commercial breaks on the satirical LarrySandersShow: “No flipping! No flipping!”) Leno took the lead because of a succession of night-to-night accidents, notably Hugh Grant’s famous blow-job apology. Once ahead, however, he acquired confidence, a precious commodity in the highly irrational landscape of late-night TV.

In the Lettermanic worldview, Leno is a robotic brown-nose who stole the TonightShow job that Letterman deserved. But Leno, in truth, was the long-suffering one. He worked a dismal comedy-club circuit for some 15 years before gaining any national recognition. Revealingly, Leno first wanted to call his book A Good Dog Will Run Till His Heart Explodes. (That would have been a boon to Kyle McLachlan, who has no publishing options now that LeadingWithMyChin is taken.) With perfect doggedness, Leno the memoirist wallows in degrading youthful episodes: performing in prisons and psychiatric wards; serving as a chauffeur for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals at Harvard; being mistaken for a hustler on Santa Monica Boulevard (too absurd, I suppose, to be untrue); being forced to deliver his material three days in a row to an audience of high-school kids in study hall. (Leno begins the second day: “Hey, have you ever been …” A teen-ager screams: “Yeah, I’vebeentoMcDonald’s, you idiot! Man, don’t you get it? We heard this stuff last night! It wasn’t good then!”)

Bitterness lurks in these anecdotes. Leno enjoys turning the tables on people who underestimated him. (Letterman, by contrast, was hailed as a genius only a few years into his career.) He revels in his all-consuming, self-abasing drive. Here is his account of one of his outings for the Hasty Pudding, picking up Jack Lemmon at the airport: “[Lemmon] was very nice to me. We got to talking and I told him I wanted to be a comedian. He gave me a big smile and said, ‘Well, maybe we’ll be neighbors in Beverly Hills someday!’ The best part of this story is that now we actually are next-door neighbors in Beverly Hills. I think that was what made me buy the house I live in. I get to wave to Jack Lemmon on my way to work every day. Sometimes he even waves back.” You can’t get very far into a discussion of the talk-show universe without mentioning Rupert Pupkin, the creepy stand-up anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s The KingofComedy. Leno certainly has a Rupert Pupkin element in his personality.

But Leno would have gotten nowhere without a cutting wit. He made his stand-up reputation by sneering at others, not himself: His jokes are almost always of the “Boy, is that stupid” variety. He used to appear on Letterman’s NBC show with first-class ranting monologues, including a tirade about circuses transcribed in the book: “Diseased animals and hermaphrodite clowns throwing anthrax spores at children. … Entertainment from the ninth century. Geeks, trolls, mutants, all these inbred circus people. … They come out from under bridges, releasing disease and pestilence into the air. I don’t like the circus.” During his first years on The Tonight Show he stifled this nastier edge to his humor, but lately, it’s re-emerged. I think Tonight started to turn around the night Leno reintroduced himself halfway through the show as “Evil Jay”; his slew of happily wicked jokes culminated in a series of Michael-Jackson-and-young-boys cracks that have since become a staple of his main material. I also remember a segment a while ago in which he asked people to open up the trunks of their cars and gleefully mocked all the crap stored up inside them. The essence of Leno’s appeal is his ability to be jovial and contemptuous at the same time.

Needless to say, “Evil Jay” is kept on a tight leash. Leno’s success in the ratings has not prevented him from behaving like an eager puppy dog with celebrities and lunging for the largest possible audience with cretinous toilet- and sex humor. But he is also confident enough to fall into a comfortable routine, an essential feature of a talk-show franchise. He’s developed a little Carson-like array of comedy characters. He’s also established a nice interplay with Kevin Eubanks, who took over as bandleader when Branford Marsalis sidled out. Eubanks is an easygoing personality with lots of on-camera charm and an infectious laugh worthy of Ed McMahon. Actually, he’s better than Ed: He guffaws loudest when Leno’s jokes bomb. The combination of Leno’s childish frown and Eubanks’ ironic chortle is as good a replacement as talk-show science can devise for Johnny Carson’s legendary shrug.

Am I seriously suggesting that Leno is better than Letterman? Not exactly. Leno is not as good as Letterman might have been in the same TonightShow chair. Where he is now, Letterman is attacked by insecurities. His mockery of corporate practices at CBS doesn’t make you laugh as his ravings about NBC once did, because it hits too close to home. Where he is now, Leno can stay in place and react: This strangest of all possible jobs requires nothing else. In his own fashion, Leno has acquired something of Carson’s Zenlike gift for charming his way through weak material. It’s not that he’s better simply because more people are watching him–that would make all of us home viewers deluded idiots. Right now, Leno is better because he knows more people are watching him. There’s democracy for you.