With all the fawning praise for David Letterman in anticipation of tonight’s final episode, I can’t help but feel a little bad for Jay Leno. It seems that almost every famous comedian is making a point of saying how Letterman was the greatest late host ever and was such an enormous influence on young comedians. Norm MacDonald almost broke down in tears the other night and told Letterman that he loved him. This stands in stark contrast to Jay Leno’s run-up to his finale, when it seemed like all he got was insults and cheap shots.
It is worth noting that Jay Leno had beaten David Letterman and everyone else in his time slot for twenty consecutive years, and he never once retaliated for all the criticism he received. Though the most visceral attacks came from Jimmy Kimmel, Letterman was rather mean spirited himself, delighting in the Conan O’Brien fiasco while repeatedly mocking Leno’s voice and also his looks by referring to him as “Big Jaw”.
The common narrative has been that Jay Leno was once a fabulous stand-up comedian who “sold out” by shifting to safer, blander comedy in order to steal away the Tonight Show from the quirkier, edgier Letterman, and then later re-steal it from the quirkier, edgier Conan O’Brien. The truth is though that all comedians who take an 11:30 network TV talk show sell out to a certain extent. Every comedian you have ever seen on network TV is nothing like they are during their stand-up routines. If you don’t believe me, just google “Bob Saget Aristocrats”. If you take a job as a late night host your job is to get ratings, and Jay Leno did that better than anyone.
Since the late shows come on at 1am where I live, I’ve never actually watched very much of Letterman or Leno, just the odd Friday night and YouTube highlight. My bias towards Jay Leno is not that he was funnier, but for how he worked harder and delivered better results than any of his competitors for twenty years, all the while refusing to say a bad word about any of his detractors. Very few people in his position would have been able to refrain from lashing out at his critics and rubbing his success in their faces.
For all that has been said about Jay Leno, the thing that really put me in his corner was when Jimmy Kimmel told Leno on his show that he and Conan had children to feed, but Jay Leno only had cars to take care of. To suggest that either Jimmy Kimmel or Conan O’Brien, who make millions of dollars a year, have any worries about looking after their children is an insult to all the people who truly understand what it means to struggle to provide for their children. Also, for all Jimmy Kimmel knows, Jay Leno and his wife may not have been able to have children, so it was particularly mean spirited to even bring up the topic of children.
I have always enjoyed David Letterman and agree with most the praise he has received. I wish him a happy and long retirement. I just can’t help but feel that Jay Leno should have gotten at least half of Letterman’s praise and well wishes when he retired from his show.