The late night war is over. Conan’s packing his pride and leaving NBC with a nice settlement. Jay Leno has emerged with his old time slot, as well as so much ire aimed at him from the cultural elite, critics, and the comedic community, that when I tuned into his show last night I had a hard time imagining exactly who could be sitting there in the audience supplying polite laughter. My go-to gauge of whatever fantasy “middle” American sentiment we refer to when we bat around the phrase “television audience” or “American viewers” is my 87-year-old grandmother, stationed in St. Paul, Minn. She’s decidedly anti-Leno, pro-Letterman, and Conan-neutral. She thinks Leno is a “sell-out.”
Do a Twitter search of “Leno + sellout” and you’ll get an idea of how much that word has been hurled at the epically chinned comedian over the past few weeks. (Clue: It’s a lot.) Sure, by the essential definition of a sellout, Leno fits the bill. He violated some idealistic concept of industry support and took back the torch he handed Conan less than a year ago, probably for money, definitely for personal gain. But I’ve hardly read anything about Leno lately that didn’t take a jab at his gajillion cars or his 8-figure salary, which is strange considering Conan hasn’t come out of this ordeal a poor man. According to the WSJ this morning, Conan’s leaving NBC with a payout of 32.5 million .
Leno’s a sellout because he traded his talent for money. And he pisses us off not because he stole the show back, but because he’s not funny, and he doesn’t care to be anymore. Watch this grainy video of Leno on the Letterman show back in 1993 . He had character. He used to be funny. (There’s more evidence of this. Search: “Jay Leno 199_” on YouTube.) Now he’s an edgeless, middling host who plays to an imaginary concept of polite, family humor, when the truth is that even polite, family humor has gotten sharper and edgier over the years. Again, I point to my Midwestern grandmother, a lover of all Apatow movies-you know, the ones in which words and phrases like “dick,” “pussy,” and “Prepare to suck the cock of karma!” are thrown around more than “amen” in a Southern Baptist church. Our tastes have changed. The concept of polite humor is dying. And we’re pissed off that network TV won’t relinquish the old guard and please us, the American audience.