We watch... so you don't have to.

Blows to the Chin

I pride myself on being fair. I think the properly contrite should get a second chance. I think issues should be analyzed objectively, not partisanly. I think condemned prisoners should be given whatever hearty meal they please before we hop 'em full of lethal poisons. So for some time now, it has been with more than a twinge of conscience that I have capitulated in the criticism of "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno.

You are, of course, familiar with Leno, the stand-up comedian extraordinaire with the preternaturally large chin. Renown for his admirable work ethic, four years ago Leno was handed the keys to "The Tonight Show," the longest running franchise on television. In the eyes of many, he promptly totaled it. As Johnny Carson's guest host, Leno had been glib and clever; as permanent host, he was hackneyed and unimaginative. Among the critics and in the ratings, he was beaten silly by his good friend David Letterman, who had since taken his video carnival to CBS. Things got so bad that NBC started running commercials styled, "America is standing up for Jay!" They may as well have said, "Pity him, the deformed beast."

Leno did eventually right the ship, soaring past Letterman in the ratings and even beating out Letterman for an Emmy. But his critics remained unbowed. The ratings surge was dismissed as mere coattailing. Changes to the show were ridiculed as stealing from Letterman. As for the Emmy, well, what do those people know? Ferchrissakes, they like "Picket Fences."

Regretfully, I have been among those critics. The other day, though, it occurred to me that perhaps I wasn't being fair. I am, admittedly, a Letterman loyalist to the bone. Perhaps that had colored my assessment of Leno. When I accused Leno of not being funny, it may very well have been the jealousy talking. After all, we Letterman supporters can only watch helplessly as Leno hitches himself to the likes of "ER," while Letterman languishes behind with... well, with whatever CBS airs Thursdays at ten. Bitterness, rage, anger, hate -- all those things have been known to cloud a judgment at one time or another.

Believe you me, this realization did not sit well, being committed to fairness as I am. So I vowed to do something about it. I vowed to give Jay Leno a fair shake. I vowed to watch one full episode of "The Tonight Show" and do my damndest to laugh at just one joke. Not chuckle, not giggle, not snicker, but laugh -- in an uproarious manner, until my sides hurt, tears are rolling down my face, stuff is dribbling out my nose, and my bodily functions shift into auto-pilot. To laugh, in other words, as I often do while watching Brooke Shields act.

This will not be easy. I have not laughed at a Leno joke since he took over "The Tonight Show." Particularly bleak was the "Dancing Itos" phase; quite frankly, the image of a robed judge prancing about hit a little too close to home. So far as I'm concerned, though, that's all water under the bridge. I've been toking on laughing gas for the past half hour; my funny bone is all shades of blue from whacking it with a metal pipe. Right now, I'm about as loopy a dyspeptic Asian as you're likely to find. I'm ready, and I'm willing to believe, because damn it, I'm standing up for Jay.

11:37 p.m.: Theme music. Jay enters to whoops and hollers. Immediately he heads for a small platform where several audience members are clamoring around his mark. Jay quickly shakes hands, almost as if he has some place to go. Jay, I decide, would not make a good politician; he doesn't do sincerity well.

11:38 p.m.: First joke. "'Clueless' was on tonight," says Jay. "Know what that is? It's the story of the judge who gave O.J. custody of his kids." I gag. Not because of the joke; because I have a McDonald's french fry lodged in my esophagus. Choking, gasping for air, and turning purple, I fumble around for the tanker of coke that came with my Big Mac meal. Undaunted, Jay plows ahead with three more quips.

11:41 p.m.: Jay notes the recent heart bypass surgery of Wendy's president Dave Thomas: "I'm sure it wasn't the double bacon cheeseburger. It was probably that wilted piece of lettuce they stick in between." The audience snickers. Meanwhile, I'm reminded of something that has been bothering me for awhile: Why does McDonald's use shredded lettuce on the Big Mac and whole pieces of lettuce for the Arch Deluxe? This not a rhetorical question. I'm just curious.

11:42 p.m.: Some video humor: Jay asks if anyone saw "The Nutcracker" over the weekend. The director cuts to a clip of the Bowe-Golota fight. Band leader Kevin Eubanks chuckles.

11:47 p.m.: More video humor: Jay mentions that he saw a Christmas special night "last night on the WB." Eubanks chuckles again. Cut to pretaped spot: "Frosty the Hitman: He'll Make Sure It's a Silent Night."

11:48 p.m.: Still more video humor: Jay complains that people don't have the Christmas spirit anymore. Eubanks continues to chuckle -- not fair; he knows what's coming. Cut to pretaped spot: Jay in a van, driving through a residential neighborhood at night while singing "Silent Night" over an intercom. People throw stuff--in the bit, not from the audience.

11:53 p.m.: Monologue's over, and so far, Jay's batting zero. Not that he's discouraged: He's doing a bit where he sits on a stool and contemplates, "What Do I Love About the Holidays?" As he speaks, pictures pops up on screen to illustrate. For example: "I love the holidays because I love seeing Jack Frost nipping at people's noses." A mangy-looking mutt appears on screen. "See, Jack Frost is the name of my rotweiller." Someone guffaws.

12:02 a.m.: Bit's over. Time for the first guest, John Travolta. "I love this guy," confesses Jay.

As you surely know, Travolta is the erstwhile star of "Saturday Night Fever," "Grease," and "Welcome Back, Kotter" who was doomed to movie star hell, or wherever those involved in the "Look Who's Talking" trilogy were consigned. Thanks in part to Quentin Tarantino, though, Travolta is once again riding high, having recently starred in "Pulp Fiction," "Get Shorty," "Broken Arrow," "Phenomenon," and his latest effort, "Michael." Travolta is also a devout Scientologist, which apparently means that he feigns sincerity better than Leno. Says Travolta to the wildly applauding crowd, immediately upon sitting down: "I just wanted to tell you all Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. And I just wanted to thank everyone for giving me such a great year in the cinema."

(A word of warning: Scientologists are reportedly a right friendly people--except when they're being mocked. Then they get downright ornery. If within the next few days, this web site is mysteriously zapped from the Internet or my lifeless body shows up in a dry creek bed, you know why.)

12:06 a.m.: Jay tells Travolta he found an old movie called "The Devil's Rain" where Travolta's face melts. The clip rolls. "FUTURE OSCAR NOMINEE" flashes on the screen.

12:14 a.m.: Jay tells Travolta that he looks fat in "Michael." Travolta explains that's for effect: "I would rather get the laugh than be vain."

Jay pulls out an old issue of Rolling Stone; Travolta is the cover boy, wearing only briefs. Women hoot. "That was 175," says Travolta. "For this I was 225."

"Fifty pounds!" exclaims Jay, in disbelief.

"Yeah, but it's funny!" protests Travolta.

12:17 a.m.: That K-Mart commercial with Rosie O'Donnell and Penny Marshall airs, where Marshall does the Macarena. I laugh hysterically. Man, what a hootenanny.

12:19 a.m.: Time for the next guest, Laura Dern, star of the abortion satire "Citizen Ruth" and, to my knowledge, not a Scientologist. Dern's out less than a minute and already she has mentioned Chapter 11's newest inductee, Burt Reynolds; her "Welcome Back, Kotter" lunch pail; and Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston--Dern's "Citizen Ruth" co-star and herself a Scientologist. (Curiously, Preston also appears in "Jerry Maguire," starring fabled Scientologist Tom Cruise. Hmmm...)

12:20 a.m.: On the off chance that the victims are watching, Dern uses her brief moment in the spotlight to apologize for an incident that occurred while shopping the previous day. Apparently a fat, but also numerically large, family had entered an elevator that Dern occupied, causing her to exclaim, "What a big group!" Ever sensitive, Dern explains that she wasn't referring to the family's girth. Jay consoles Dern by telling her about his peg-legged uncle.

12:23 a.m.: Dern reveals that clowns "terrify" her. Jay probes for the source of this irrational fear: "Did you have some sort of traumatic experience as a child?"

"I dunno," says Dern. "Maybe."

12:25 a.m.: Dern proposes that she, Travolta, and Leno do flight safety videos--you know, "This plane is equipped with six exits: two forward, two aft, and two over the wings." Jay seems agreeable, but Travolta appears reluctant.

12:29 a.m.: Jay introduces musical guest Stone Temple Pilots. He refrains from calling lead singer Scott Weiland a "smack-addled punk"; it's possible he was distracted by Weiland's eye liner and eye shadow.

12:37 a.m.: Jay bids goodnight as all the guests gather on the couch--all the guests, but one. For some reason, the lone Scientologist among them is nowhere to be seen.

Now, I suppose you're probably thinking, "I just waded through nearly 1600 words on the foibles of a large-chinned wag. There sure as hell better be a point to this, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it is. So 'fess up, Chinaman, what's your point? How am I supposedly enlightened? What am I, the TV fanatic, supposed to have gleaned from this?"

A whole lotta nothing, that's what. Are you nuts? This is TV. I write to entertain, not teach. If you want morals, read Aesop.

Having straightened out that misconception, though, I do think the careful reader can come away with a number of observations. The first is Jay Leno ain't very funny. I realize, of course, that you may think differently, that everyone has their own sense of humor, that everyone has their own tastes. But who cares what you think? This is my soap box, and you can just get the hell off. Second, I think the careful reader will notice that there are a startling number of Scientologists among Hollywood figures--far more than you might find among a less economically prosperous class like, say, short order cooks.

Finally, I think the careful reader will notice this--perhaps the most important observation of all: Never start out to write something without an idea of how you'll finish it, because then you just end up making light of that planning deficiency. And that's just lame.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *