20 January 2010

How to Ruin Late Night

I don't know if you've ever seen NBC's Tonight Show, but starting next week, i wouldn't recommend it, because it will most likely be terrible. And the reason it will be terrible is because Jay Leno will be hosting it. Again. Instead of Conan O'Brien.

A couple of weeks ago, NBC said they'd move Jay Leno out of prime time back to the opening late night time slot and push O'Brien's iteration of the Tonight Show back to midnight. This is, of course, an unfair, unpopular and sudden decision on the part of NBC. I accept all that, and you can find on most entertainment blogs an analysis of the situation detailing the why and how, but it's not the point I'd like to make. The point I'd like to make is that NBC has made an intentional decision to avoid creating meaningful culture.

I'm no fan of Jay Leno. Granted, his stand-up is meant for a generation (or two) prior to my own. I've never known him as a stand-up, but I can appreciate his sense of comedy in the clips I have seen. In truth, I've only ever known Leno as the host of the Tonight Show, which I know from my elders as a show that was hilarious when Johnny Carson was at the helm.

Mostly I caught the beginning as I switched to Late Show, or the tail end as I tuned in for Late Night. However, I have seen enough full episodes to have decided so long ago that Jay Leno was not funny that I've come to believe it's something I've known implicitly my whole life, like how to not breathe when I drink something or that the Beatles are some of the finest songwriters to have lived.

What's important is the reason Jay Leno is not funny, which is that Jay Leno is far too nice and far too likable. The reason people find him nice and likable is that he is sort of like them, and most people are remarkably unfunny. Most people snicker a little when someone at the office responds to anything being said with, "Sounds like a personal problem!" Again, most people are not funny. In fact, they're probably laughing in an attempt to ease the unspoken social tension created by working with people you either hate or don't know.

This is why Jay Leno is not funny and why Conan O'Brien is. Conan actively makes fun of just about anyone, and most often, himself. Jay Leno makes jokes that people at offices laugh at, which means that the function of his show and his comedy has been and will be to ease the general tension in America created by our ever-increasing sense of alienation from our neighbors or active dislike towards them.

To cite one example, on the Tonight Show, Leno did a segment called "Headlines" in which he would read actual headlines submitted by, I assume, fans of the show. Conan, on the other hand, had a similar segment in which he simply made up headlines. In no way was anyone under the impression these were real headlines, but factuality doesn't make something funny. The real life situation the comedy speaks to and critiques is the connection to reality which makes the comedy meaningful.

And since this means that Leno's habit of hi-fiving audience members is the only ironic thing Leno ever did on the Tonight Show. In identifying physically with his audience, Leno solidified his symbolic position as the person who normalizes their already existing opinions on culture. Conan, on the other hand, routinely mocks audience members and guests and pokes fun at his coworkers. In doing so, he actually exposes aspects of himself to criticism, and in turn exposes the value of our own character traits to criticism and self-criticism.

So, while Leno maintains a certain cultural status quo, O'Brien actually engages and changes culture. And that is what makes NBC the vehicle signifying the ruin of our culture, or at least, of our television culture. By choosing Leno over Conan, NBC is choosing to maintain some kind of vague traditional social agreement as to what is acceptably funny (which, let's face it, a masturbating bear is decidedly not), instead of choosing to take a risk in creating and critiquing culture.

Of course, who hosts which late night show probably isn't ultimately all that important. However, what those hosts signify in terms our attitudes and cultural values is. Choose culture. Choose Coco.


Scottish said...

That's a really interesting take on the situation that I hadn't heard from anyone yet.

Elliot said...

I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's exactly right.