When we think of supervillains, we think in comic book terms: Lex Luthor, The Joker, The Green Goblin. That’s fantasy, though; we seldom see real-life villains who are so flamboyant, the occasional Dick Cheney aside. But Jay Leno gets that kind of rise out of those of us who loathe him. Back in 2010, in the midst of the Conangate, Patton Oswalt made a comparison I’ve never quite shaken: “There’s a Rick Perlstein book called Nixonland… the kind of rise of Nixon, and his sort of drive to power, is weirdly parallel with Jay’s, I think.”
To illustrate the point, he compares Leno with Letterman — who, it should be noted, wouldn’t have generated a tenth of the ink Leno did, if he’d taken over Tonight and this whole thing had happened to him. “What kind of boss do you want?” Oswalt asks, hypothetically. “Do you want the kind of boss that acts like everything is great, and plans parties for people, and is always doing these fun activities, but is also passive-agressively kind of mean, and is always doing this weird behind the scenes stuff? Or someone like David Letterman, who is the boss, and is like, ‘I’m in a bad mood, I don’t wanna talk to you people,’ but you always know exactly where he stands? He doesn’t play any games with you?”
In other words, part of the reason that Leno’s backstage machinations and transparently undercutting interviews sit so poorly is because he’s tried so hard to create the image of the Nicest Guy in Hollywood: just a simple Joe, workin’ on his vintage cars, wearin’ his denim, wanting nothing more (as he says in Bill Carter’s The War for Late Night) than “to tell jokes at 11:30.” But that’s a gig that he (and particularly his manager, the late Helen Kushnick) played dirty to get, and that all evidence indicates he played dirty to keep. That doesn’t jibe with his carefully cultivated nice-guy image, and makes said image seem that much more artificial.
The other reason those of us who dislike Leno really dislike Leno is simply a question of talent. There was a time when Leno was, no exaggeration, the finest road comic in the country (I saw him live when I was 12 years old, and it remains one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever seen), and to be sure, there’s a large segment of the population that tunes in every night and thinks Jay Leno is a gifted and witty comic and talk-show host. But he’s not — and (as Oswalt points out) he clearly chose that path, reaching a point early in his Tonight Show run where “he willfully shut the switch off,” aiming for the middle of the road, the easy OJ Simpson joke, the inoffensive. (His final guests will be Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks, for Chrissakes, indicating his long-held preference for not only vanilla, but 20-year-old vanilla.) We’re a lot more tolerant of bad behavior from our geniuses — again, witness his rival, Letterman, and his weird sex scandal.
As Leno heads into his home stretch, he doesn’t have the options he did last time around; there’s no primetime slot waiting, and he’s said (though, y’know, grain of salt) that he wouldn’t do a rival show or go back to Tonight if Fallon fails there. But as Time’ s James Poniewozik notes, there was this exchange on 60 Minutes:
Steve Kroft: You said all of the same things, exactly about Conan. Jay Leno: Huh? Did I say the same things? Yeah, prob — well, maybe I did, yeah. Well, we’ll see what happens.
If ever a line called for a maniacal laugh at its conclusion, it’s that one.