Dennis: With noted racist, anti-Semite, misogynist, homophobe, drunk driver, all-around scumbag, and MOVIE STAR Mel Gibson’s recent appearance on The Tonight Show, it remains abundantly clear that Johnny Carson’s erstwhile pad is the cushiest landing any well-connected and wealthy asshole could hope for. Of course, it’s beyond hacky to observe that Jay Leno is the most irrelevant, bland suck-up in the increasingly-passing-him-by late night firmament, but this week’s appearance takes the damn taco. Maybe it was Mel’s cutesy-pie “I’m still just good ol’ wisecrackin’, prank-playin’ Mel!” demeanor, or Jay’s predictably weak-ass, “I’ve made all manner of pre-show agreements not to ask anything remotely uncomfortable while I smile and nod” questions, but I think this seems like a whole new nadir in lame Leno-ism. (And KKK hoods off to the crowd for chuckling along so indulgently- "That’s a whole, real live MOVIE STAR!! I have no long-term memory whatsoever!!")
And now, there’s this. Leno’s gonna turn his nerf-edged debate skills on next week’s prize guest, abortive Republican presidential hopeful, noted homophobe, misogynist, and all-around born-again a-hole (just ask Dan Savage) Rick Santorum, who’ll undoubtedly settle in to Jay’s cuddly cushions, smile his cold-eyed GOP hate-smile and crack a few aide-penned gently-conservative jokes about how his atavistic fringe candidacy represents what real Americans think.
Way to go Jay.
I mean, it’s not like I think that Jay Leno actually agrees with Rick Santorum’s dipshit policies. It’s just that, at this point, I think that Leno once, long ago, a relatively-groundbreaking standup, is nothing but a slick-suited corporate shill interested in nothing but presenting the most vapid (or, in some cases, reprehensible-but-ratings-worthy) guests in the light they feel is most flattering in order to keep the comfy late night gig he wrestled back from the infinitely-funnier and edgier Conan O’Brien. In contrast, just check out how Leno contemporary (and inexplicably ratings punching bag) the enduringly-irascible David Letterman took on bloviating right wing media creep Bill O’Reilly on his late-night show, demonstrating that just because some mean-spirited, racist jackass agrees to sit on your couch, it doesn’t mean you have to gratefully fellate him on-camera.
Or am I just stating the obvious again?
Justin: I think you are overstating the savvy of the Jay Leno audience. They’re one Shrek T-shirt away from a studio tour and blinded, BLINDED I TELLS YOU, by the appearance of that guy who once shot up half of LA with that cranky old black cop. (BTW, watched part of Lethal Weapon 2 the other night because it came on. Somehow held up in a kind of genre-y way. I may be part of the problem.)
Let’s put Mel aside for a second, because really, as far as high-caliber guest bookings go in the late night wars, is Mel really a big gun anymore? Ask anyone in that audience to name the last movie (or even 3 movies) he was in, and I would almost guarantee they couldn’t come up with anything in the last 10 years.
I think you may have touched on a larger issue in the late night wars, one that is probably very fraught: What’s the role of a late night show these days? I like to think there are three schools of thought on the matter, and they easily map to shows on the air: Traditionalists, the new guard and the goofballs.
The traditionalists, whose shows probably follow the same format laid out by by Steve Allen in the Chesterfield Good Time Tabacco Hour Sponsored by Nabisco. These shows (and hosts) are a paint by number affair where the monologue, guests and interviews are as predictable as they are vanilla. This is the place where you can reliably go to plug whatever it is that needs shilling without shame or fear of probing questions. (Jay falls in here)
The new guard, who are likely to take chances with their show, from the guests to the interviews and the comedy bits (or even using comedy bits at all). To a certain degree shows in this category still perform the same function as the traditional late night show, but they are likely to take chances with the guests, ask impolite questions, ding the host’s image and generally mess around with the form. (I’d say Conan, The Daily Show and Jimmy Kimmel are in this group.)
Finally the goofballs, who are ultimately out to have fun and put on a good show. These shows will turn the format upside down to have fun, or follow the normal late show script if enough laughs can be mined from it. In these shows everything is fair game: The guests, the hosts, the band (if there is one), and the audience. The questioning and the bits are just as likely to not make any sense as they are to leave you crying because you’re laughing so hard. (Jimmy Fallon and the Colbert Report are in this group)
If I was a TV generalist I’d say that the winner is the audience because they get so much great entertainment! But that’s bullshit. The winner is really the actors, athletes and musicians who have the pick of what prism they want to be seen through and what audience they want to reach. You go on Leno for the specific reason that it is nonthreatening and you reach a middle of the road audience. You go on Colbert or the Daily Show if you want to seem intellectual but fun. You go on Fallon if you’re up for a gag and want the kids to like you. (You go on Conan if you love Conan. I KID!)
Since I’m a pragmatist with a mean streak, I’d say certain audiences get the shows they deserve. You and I probably don’t know people who watch Leno, or Two and a Half Men, or enjoy Larry the Cable Guy, or have a Rascal Flats album. Again, I’m generalizing, but I feel like we could work up a venn diagram that shows where the audience for all of those is similar. And they are the reason people like Jay Leno continue to be on TV, and why Mel Gibson somehow continues to be culturally relevant. Seriously, how did he get booked on a chat show? Was Shadoe Stevens not available?
Leno is a the salve that makes half-assed career rehabs happen, in the same category as doing the Today show or (when it was on) Oprah. I think I just called Jay Leno ass salve. I’ll stop there.
Dennis: Trenchant as always, of course, J-Man. There are times when I think you’d be more at home at some Harvard think tank than hanging out on some bloggy hinterland with the likes of me. Well, we can dream.
Anyway. Loathe to disagree with you as I am, I gotta say that Herr Gibson is hardly irrelevant these days. Sure, his last would-be theatrical release went, essentially straight to DVD, and he’s essentially persona non grata as far as much of Hollywood goes (especially since inexplicable Gibson pal and apologist Jodie Foster’s attempted Mel-juvenation project The Beaver tanked), but, as the church-bus-bloated grosses for Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ showed, he remains a perma-tanned magnet for those like-minded conservative Christians who look to him as one of the only people they can relate to in Jew-y, faggy Hollywood.
(And don’t feel bad about enjoying Lethal Weapon movies; I, too, long for the days when I innocently thought that gleam in Riggs’ eyes meant he was just a grief-stricken cop on the edge and not that he just thought of another cool ethnic slur.)
And Leno, in giving Melly his traditionally-marshmallow-y landing pad/showcase for his (don’t kid yourself) very savvy PR spin control, got Mel’s best defense:
"I’ve got a little bit of a temper."
Clap-clap-clap, smirk-smirk-smirk; we got to see a real, live movie star!
I mean, I’ve got a little bit of a temper, too. I often look back in greater or lesser regret, on ways in which my temper allowed me to respond to greater or minor irritations with less-than-noble pettiness. We’ve all been there, right?
-We’ve all threatened to have the mother of our child killed.
-We’ve all used racial slurs.
-We’ve all claimed that the Jews are the cause of all the wars in the world.
-We’ve all used terms like “oven-dodgers,” “niggers,” “sugar tits,” etc.
Oh, wait, that’s only Jay’s bestest buddy. Mel Gibson. And (in his much more guarded and politially-adept way) his newest pal Rick Santorum.
Anything for a guest…
Photo courtesy of Zimbio.com.