Friday, September 11, 2009

On Jay Leno and 9/11

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.

That's all.


Adam said...

It's what Joan Rivers said of Bob Hope back in the 1970s: "Audiences nowadays want to know their comedian. Can you please tell me one thing about Bob Hope? If you only listened to his material, would you know the man?"

And all we know about Leno is that he works hard and likes to collect cars and motorcycles.

Anonymous said...

This is a weak attack on Jay and his new show, and it shows poor taste.

Doug S said...

"Now, I don't think Jay is a bad guy. ....but by all accounts, he treats people well"

I wonder if his former manager would agree with your too-kindness.

Nice post, thanks. It reminds me of things to be thankful for as well, while also reminding me I never have to check the NBC schedule at 10:00 again.

Kevin said...

I kind of agree about the "poor taste" comment. Alan, you seem to spend a good portion of the article acknowledging that you are holding him to an unreasonable standard yet you still do it. Personally, I don't think you should have published this column at all.

The bit about Leno and the distancing from his audience bit certainly has merit but should not in any way be included in a post about 9/11.

I love your columns Alan but I'm enormously disappointed that you would write this one.

Alan Sepinwall said...

It was something that was on my mind. Sometimes, the best (and only) way to get things off my mind is to write it up as a quick post on the blog.

I said repeatedly that I don't have a problem with what Jay did. I was just struck by the timing of this, and also how it helps clarify my thinking about Jay in some ways.

srpad said...

I liked this post. Jay always seemed different from the other big late night hosts but I could never put my finger on why. This was it. There is a distance there that many of the others lack.

As far as 9/11, I was in Jury Duty of all places that day and I remember one of the officials kept poking his head in and giving worse and worse news. The prosecutor started to get panicked a bit because his son in law worked at the WTC (as far as I can remember all ended up being well with him) and they didn't let us out until after 11. I found out a few minutes later that the rest of the county employees had fled hours before and all of the roads around the courthouse were blocked (I was not far, as a crow flies, from NYC).

I did finally get home and watched like everyone else the horrible events as they unfolded. The information, misinformation, everything. Hours later, in the evening, HBO had scheduled a sneak preview of the season premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm and I watched it, desperate for a laugh and it worked. I felt much better. HBO had gotten some static for airing it and ended up postponing the official premiere that w as supposed to air that Sunday after but the silliness of Larry David trying to be a car salesman helped me get through it.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I added a quick addendum to the post, which I hope clarifies the point.

Mapeel said...

I just wanted to say thank you, Alan, for linking to the Letterman/Stewart and The Onion. I didn't see either of the monologues live (wasn't yet watching tv again then), and I haven't seen them in all the years since. It has really helped my day.

Grunt said...

I'm sure this is not supposed to be the place that people post things about where they were when...But I was on the Upper West Side of New York City, my husband has flown home from working at the Telluride Film Festival on September 10 and I was working the morning shift as a Barresta for the local coffee place before I went off to classes (I was in my final year of law school).

Someone ran into the coffee place sometime after 8:30 to ask if we had a television and then told us someone had flown a plane into the WTC. We turned on the radio. The information was sparse and I kept cracking jokes about how they would give any drunk guy with a pilot's license access to a sesna.

And then the second plane hit and we knew.

I thought what Letterman and Stewart said were profound, and they helped me heal. It's not Leno's fault that he wasn't based in NYC and doesn't have that kind of connection. But it does mean I have warm feelings for Stewart & Letterman for helping all of us New Yorkers get through a very difficult time, and I just don't have that same connection with Leno.

rosengje said...

I just watched the Stewart monologue for the first time and I could barely look at the screen. I have a whole new level of awe and respect for him. The only other 9/11 related piece that affected me so much is when Woody Allen made his appearance at the Oscars to encourage filmmakers to stay in New York. I get choked up every time I watch it.

Anna said...


Nice post. I don't think it was unfair at all. Jay is a pure joke delivery comedian. And there is a market for that. But Dave and Jon connect with audience on a personal level.

I remember both of Dave's and Jon's shows post 9/11 - and anxiously waiting to hear what they said. And while the differences between the post-9/11 shows, demonstrates the personalness (or lack there of) of the preformers, the fact that I didn't seek out Jay's response is even more telling.

Dave also was unbelievably real after the heart surgery and the birth of Harry. Jay was out for mysterious reasons and barely discussed it.

And as for NBC putting Jay on at 10, I stick with my original sentiment.. "NBC has given up." It makes me incredibly sad that the network that gave us St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blue, LA Law, ER, and Homicide, has given up.

Anonymous said...

I think it was a fine post Alan, and an observation of what Leno has shown himself to be over the past 20 years, not "unfair" at all.

JanieJones said...

My brother died on 9/11. He went to work after a vacation and I still have his voice recording from when he called me to say that something had hit the tower but they were going to get out, while hearing hysterics and general pandemonium in the background.

I have never held Leno to any kind of expectation after the attacks. I was touched by Letterman, Stewart to name a few.
However, my west coast friends had a much harder time identifying with the tragedy because it did not directly affect their coast. I did not hold them in disregard. You have to live through it to really feel it.
Alan, I take no offense to your blog today.
I'm not a Leno fan but I know he does his job well, telling jokes. I won't be tuning in at 10pm but it's because I have other opinions about where prime time television should be at that hour, not because I have anything against Leno.
It's a sad day for thousands of people.
I think Alan was trying to empathize and speak about how he felt.
Many people are feeling many things today.
Eight years, it seems like yesterday to me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for linking back to The Onion issue published after 9/11. I remember picking it up and I laughed and sobbed like crazy reading it. It was literally, the first time I had laughed in weeks.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Thanks for sharing, those of you who have (and I'm very sorry for your loss, Janie Jones). Feel free to keep offering up your own 9/11 stories if you want. I'd have given more details on my own, but it's not that interesting.

Karen said...

Alan, I think this is a lovely, thoughtful post, and I completely disagree that it's in poor taste.

I saw a blog post somewhere yesterday by a guy who'd gotten in to one of the Leno preview shows, and he made the same point you do about how Leno keeps people at a remove (he expressed surprise that there's no desk on the new set, just chairs--he thought that was more intimate a conversational setting than Leno was used to). It's not a criticism of the guy, it's just an observation of his style.

Unknown said...

Janie, that's true. It is far away and a lot more distant to those of us on the "wrong" coast. It's just not as personal if you've never been there, don't have East Coast loved ones, etc. It is a cosmic tragedy to me, but not a personal one. I don't think that's right, but there it is. Okay, so I doubt Jay knows nobody on that coast, but it is distant.

Now, if The Big One ever pulverizes LA or the future on Dollhouse comes to pass, Jay may have a vastly different experience than the East Coasters when it comes to the post-disaster monologue....

Hatfield said...

As a resident of Southern California, I was woken up by my grandmother coming in my room and saying, "Brian! Brian, get up, we're under attack!" That got me out of bed in a hurry, and I spent most of that morning glued to the TV. It did happen to hit home for me though, as the father of my little brother's close friend was on one of the planes (I don't recall which). That fact didn't come to light immediately, but I still remember coming to work in city hall in HB, being astonished that we weren't closed.

As to your post, Alan, I remember it getting very dusty the first time I saw Stewart's monologue; thank you for helping me to see it again.

Paul Outlaw said...

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.

Yes, and I'm one of those people who find Letterman unbearably annoying and Leno pretty boring. I much prefer Conan, Craig Ferguson, Stewart, Colbert and Handler for my late night comedy.

James Poniewozik said...

I didn't think you were slamming Leno's reaction at all. I think you nailed something about him. There is a strong streak of detachment in him in him, both in his performance and in his career. You see it in the way he talks about the TV business--never fall in love with a hooker--and his thing of banking his TV money and living off what he makes on the road. There's this caution to him, this guardedness: don't depend on a job you can get fired from, depend on the job that you can control. Don't get invested. Don't take it personally. Write joke, tell joke, get check. I don't know where exactly it comes from, but it's all of a piece, I think. And I don't think there's anything wrong with it--either personally or in the way he does his act--it's just a difference between him and Letterman, and it's worth pointing out.

amyp3 said...

I'd rather comment on the clips than the ongoing host wars or what I think of Leno.

Five months ago tomorrow, on a weekend trip to my parents, I was awakened in the early morning hours when my elderly mother found my father collapsed dead on the floor.

So I wasn't going to watch/ read much 9/11 discussion today because I feel I've been through a lot else.

But perhaps I needed "a good cry," and boy, did I just get it from seeing Jon's monologue for the first time. Especially his comment about what the view from his apartment was before and after. Just wow.

JanieJones, I'm sorry that you lost a loved one that day. I live away from the Northeast(the Detroit area). But I'm always stunned by the people who say 9/11 seemed like a distant event to them. Perhaps it's because, although I haven't been able to visit NYC much, I still have great affection for it and its residents. If I was pro-New York before, I was doubly so afterward in compassion and admiration.

Brian said...

Very good post. Frankly, I think you're too easy on Leno. I understand that you're trying to be diplomatic with the "his comedy's just not my thing" comments, but let's face it: he's a hack with no engaging personality and no discernible talent (at least none since his stand-up days). Your observations here about his post-9/11 show just confirm that his show lacks the personality, idiosyncrasy, and spark of Letterman, Conan, and Stewart.

I'll never forget Letterman's post-9/11 show -- not just the monologue, but the whole show, especially his interview with Dan Rather. Dave and Dan were both on the verge of tears and physically comforting one another. It was extremely moving.

Anonymous said...

Alan, I enjoyed your post very much. I totally feel the same way you do in regard to Leno and readers need to be reminded that it's your blog and you can write about what's on your mind. My husband and I always thought and still think Leno is quite a mystery.

DolphinFan said...


There's nothing wrong with what you wrote about Jay Leno at all. It wasn't the least bit insulting and touched on what makes him both extraordinarly successful and very...I guess the word might be "austere" as much as it can apply to a comedian and late-night talk show host.
I live in Virginia and on 9/11 was living three blocks from the Pentagon, so I know very well that everyone is going to have a very specific vantage point on the events of that horrifying day. And that's probably why I and a lot of other people who either lived in NYC/the DC area/Pennsylvania connected so strongly to the David Letterman and Jon Stewart monologues.

KC said...

It is prescient to point out on a day like today a perfect example of why Letterman, for all is aloofness, "gets it". He can connect with an audience and grasp the mood after such an event in a way that Leno just can't. Carson had it, along with the skill to make even the dullest person sound interesting but Leno just tells jokes and is a crappy interviewer. Yes, he has improved somewhat, but like you, I just don't get it. I can never see him as ever being great at what he does.

Lisa (South Africa) said...

I couldn't disagree more with everything you have said about Jay Leno. Just the fact that you didn't see his post-9/11 monologue shows that you're not a regular viewer of his, and have probably formed these opinions based on snippets of his show. I, on the other hand, watch every single show of his, start to finish, and I feel that I know Jay Leno better than I know almost anybody else on television. His personality comes through in everything he does. He often tells personal stories, gives his opinions on both trivial and important issues, talks about his wife and his passions, and generally comes across as an all-round great guy. I love his humour! He has me laughing out loud every single night, and his interview skills are surpassed by none. He isn't aiming at deep exposes, but I get to know something about every guest that he has on the show because he puts them at ease. Letterman and Stewart are fine, quite funny, not irritating, watchable, but they're not Jay. At least Jay realizes that interviews are about the guest, as opposed to another late night host who devotes 10% of each interview to the guest, and 90% to what the guest thinks about the host's own hair, pale skin, height, and general geekiness, seeming to fish for compliments with every question. I can't remember exactly what Jay said after 9/11, but I have seen him give many heartfelt opinions on serious issues, and I've heard him say that there are times when he has had to make the conscious decision that what people need during some of the difficult times is laughter. You may not like Jay, but his ratings show that you are in the minority.

JT said...

sorry, but I'd rather have my eyes gouged out with a spoon than ever see Stewart mugging it up, even after 9/11. His monologue was so awful hat it made me cringe and I neve watched TDS again (don't miss the smarm at all, either!). letterman's was a bit better, especially the line that went somehting like "if you live to e a thousand years old, will this everm ake any goddamn sense." I don't remember it exactly and don't feel the need to ever see it again, either.

That day is still pretty fresh for me and I don't need late night celebs telling me how i should feel about it. I think about that day a lot and always will until the day i die.

i can never, ever forget that shot of that poor man climbing out the window, trying to scale down the side of the WTC, clinging onto life and wanting to stay alive os bady, and then slipping and falling...down down down...

John in Durham said...

Hey Alan -

Lisa (South Africa) told Julie to tell Tim to tell me to tell you that she used to like you but now she doesn't and you can't sit with her at lunch any more.

It's already been said by multiple folks here that what you wrote was an interesting observation about the striking difference in styles between different people doing essentially the same job. It was hardly an attack.

As for 9/11, I lived and worked in DC back then, and will never forget the smoke from the Pentagon, the heightened fear as sonic booms from the USAF patrols over the region were mistaken for explosions, the anxiety (one false rumor after another about truck bombs and the like), and the stunned looks on the faces of so many co-workers because for some reason nearly 1/3 were from NYC and had family & friends in those towers. A day most of us will never -- and should never -- forget.

Lizbeth said...

On 9/11 I had just dropped my kids off at daycare and school and was savoring an opportunity to listen to Howard Stern (and some adult radio )for a change.

I was in for a rude awakening because instead of being funny, Stern began reporting on the plane crash at the Towers. I was on my way to the mall to buy birthday gifts for my daughter and I listened to the Stern broadcast the whole time.

Yesterday, I wasn't really thinking about 9/11 until I turned on Stern again and they rebroadcast part of their 9/11 coverage. Suddenly, it all came flowing back to me, all the emotions I experienced that day.

So in an odd way, my personal recollections and horror of that day will always be closely tied to the Howard Stern show.

sanford said...

I am not sure where all the dislike for Leno comes from. (Not from posters here except one) I do prefer Letterman. I don't think Jay is a bad interviewer. I don't think Letterman was considered a great interviewer before moving to CBS. One has to remember that all these late night shows are comedy shows. Every one has a different sense of humor.

As for the person who mentioned how Jay treated his producer. I think her name was Helen. They had been together for a long time. She had a bad reputation in the business. Generally speaking Jay is considered a pretty good guy. If that is the only bad time he had with some one, I would say that is a pretty good record.

JT said...

That old lady was also his manager and she had a reputation as a real see you next tuesday. So, while Jay put on the good guy front, she was doing all the work, kicking ass and getting him where he got. he owed her a lot but that is often the case with nice guys. thy ALWAYs have sharks working for them unseen and unheard of. Most of hte time.

IIRC, during Leno's last appearance on the Stern show after her death, he talked about how at her funeral, one of her kids read a statement saying how leno was responsible for her death.

Dreadful persons all around.

Unknown said...

Conan's post-9/11 monologue was quite good and heartfelt as well - a transcript can be found here (couldn't find a video).

Anonymous said...

What about Howard Stern? I always hear about Letterman and Stewart when Stern never went off the air and he had a tv show on E. Stern was able to make us laugh, but also serious discussions and listeners that were there are that lost people. I know part of Stern's persona is braggin, he is right though that he does not get respect and he had a lot more listeners than Letterman/Stewart had viewers.

Leno was a great standup, as a host he is a sell-out. Stealing bits from Letterman/Stern and flat out admitting that he bites from Steve Allen. And by all accounts he is a scumbag.

Jim said...

Stealing bits from Letterman/Stern and flat out admitting that he bites from Steve Allen.

In fairness, don't they all steal from Steve Allen? And don't they all admit it? Letterman's alka-seltzer suit and a couple other gags were straight rip offs of Steve Allen, IIRC.

I saw Leno live years ago, before the whole post-Carson battles, and he was hilarious, sharp and satirical. He may still be. I'd never heard that he draws a bright line between his stand up and his TV job. Maybe that's the answer, maybe Leno does't think much of his TV job and audience, 'cause from what I've seen, he could be replaced by that automated DJ from the early Simpsons episode about Bart's elephant (Those clowns in Congress! What a bunch of clowns!). Letterman and Stewart challenge their audiences, the TV Leno doesn't.

ga said...

I just wanted to say, "thanks," Alan for the links to the Letterman/Stewart tributes. I remember November 22, 1963 vividly, as well as the summer of 1969. Formative childhood years. My children will remember September 11th, my parents remembered what they were doing on December 7, 1941. In many ways, these are the bookmarks of our lives. Eight years later, and we still cry.

Anonymous said...

I can't remember exactly what Jay said after 9/11

I think that says a lot right there. Eight years later and I still remember exactly what Letterman, Stewart, and especially The Onion had to say about 9/11. Granted, I didn't care what Leno thought, but given what you wrote about him, I would think you would remember exactly what he said about that day.