This is a blog about TV, and for the most part I try to keep things light and separated from politics, war and the other big, scary, angry issues of the day.
But it's September 11, and I'm having a hard time focusing on my column for Monday about the launch of "The Jay Leno Show" because I keep thinking about where I was eight years ago, about what I could see (and what I deliberately avoided seeing) out my apartment window in Hoboken, and even about the good news that happened that day (like an architect friend who was on an elevator in the first tower that was hit, knew how bad things were for the building to shake the way it did upon that impact, and made a beeline for the stairwell).
I spent some time this morning reading the brilliant post-9/11 edition of The Onion, and then I saw that at A List of Things Thrown 5 Minutes Ago, Adam posted both video links and transcripts of the amazing monologues that David Letterman and Jon Stewart did on their first shows back after the attacks.
And that, in turn, brought me back to Jay Leno, whom I'll say more about after the jump...
While you see clips of Letterman and Stewart every year on this day, Leno's own post-9/11 monologue doesn't come up (I haven't even been able to find a clip of it, though I'm sure some enterprising soul could). And that's because, while Letterman and Stewart were laying their souls bare for their audience, talking about how they didn't want to go back to doing their silly comedy shows but recognized that it would have value to them and the people watching, Leno kept his emotional distance and didn't seem to know what to say or how to transition back into telling jokes.
Now, I don't think Jay is a bad guy. His comedy's not my thing, but by all accounts, he treats people well and is as hard a worker as there is in the TV business. I know it's not fair to judge how a guy living and working in LA reacted to 9/11 compared to that of two long-time New Yorkers. And the eloquence and emotional honestly of Letterman and Stewart's monologues should be considered the exception and not the rule; how can you hold it against Leno that he couldn't find the right words under such an extreme, tragic circumstance?
But at the same time, Leno's reaction was about more than bi-coastal differences. Jay has always kept the audience at a bit of a distance. (His guests, too, which is why his interviews tend to feel even more manufactured than on the other late-night shows.) Letterman's show, for good and for ill, is infused with his personality, but Jay is just a guy who likes to go out there and tell some jokes, you know? On his last "Tonight Show," when he brought out all the kids who had been born to "Tonight" staffers during his 17 years as host, it was a sweet moment, but it also felt a bit startling, because it was a rare occasion when Jay dropped the emotional curtain that usually separated himself from the viewers.
Based on the ratings, most late-night viewers had no problem with Jay keeping that curtain up, but it shouldn't have been surprising that he seemed to be squirming under the hot lights on that first show back after 9/11. That was a period when most of us - especially those of us who lived near Manattan or the Pentagon - had no choice but to drop whatever barriers we usually kept up. We were all just one exposed nerve.
That's just not how Jay Leno rolls, and that's fine. But it definitely feels odd to be writing about him on this day, of all days.
UPDATE: It's been suggested by a couple of the commenters that I'm holding Jay to an unfair standard even as I'm saying it's unfair. So I want to be clear: the point of this post wasn't to criticize how Jay did his show that first night back. That he did a show at all was commendable, and as a guy 3,000 miles away, and with a very different personality from Dave or Jon, he shouldn't be expected to act the same way. (If anything, it would have seemed disingenuous if he had.)
My point, which I may or may not have gotten across as I wrote this post stream-of-consciousness style, is that as I sit here on the anniversary of 9/11, writing a column about Jay's new show (that, like James Poniewozik's Time cover story, is mainly about the implications for the TV business if that show succeeds, or if it fails), I can't help but think back to that monologue as the moment where I think I really understood Jay Leno as talk show host. Again, he keeps himself emotionally separate from his audience and comes out and tells jokes. Lots of people love him for that, in the same way they don't watch Dave because they don't like his personality and his show is nothing but personality. It's not good or bad, but different, and that difference was starkest on this occasion when all the talk show hosts had to find a way to keep doing their jobs in the wake of unimaginable tragedy.