By Ken Tucker
Updated February 18, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

I decided to watch The Tonight Show With Jay Leno while Late Show With David Letterman is in reruns, as Letterman recovers from his quintuple bypass operation. The idea was to see if The Tonight Show‘s now-regulation style — Leno’s slaphappy silliness; his producers’ rev-up-the-crowd, wobbly-camera, party-hearty hoopla — might actually yield something interesting over a sustained stretch of viewing. I wanted to see, really, how much of Leno the truly funny comedian, the feisty fellow with a tough edge honed from thousands of nightclub nights, the guy who had kept me laughing hard in his pre-hosting days, still existed.

Let’s face it, there are Jay Leno devotees and David Letterman admirers, and since feigning objectivity doesn’t pay either camp any compliment, I’ll admit up front that I place myself in the latter group. I prefer Letterman’s much-abused, apparently out-of-fashion irony — an irony in his case that is less crusty than amusingly starchy. It manifests itself as the steadfast comic distance maintained by a man determined to control his destiny yet doomed to have that control denied. Such perpetual frustration — like those weeks of grousing to executive producer Rob Burnett about Hillary Clinton’s flacks giving him the runaround (a gag that turned out to be more amusing than Hillary’s actual appearance) — is what makes him funny.

I know that Leno is an intelligent guy, but after a week and a half of seeing him interview everyone from Matt Damon to Jonathan Taylor Thomas (wait, that’s not much of a range: let’s say, from Heidi Klum to David Lynch — the curvy story to The Straight Story), it’s obvious that his Tonight Show is primarily a place for celebrities to go hawk their wares, to describe the movie/TV show/calendar they’ve just brought to market, with Leno acting as genial assistant huckster. Conversation is limited to plugs and personal agendas. When Taylor Thomas was on, for example, Leno made a big deal of saying he wanted to address a “rumor” that the young actor is gay. “No, I’m not!” said Taylor Thomas. The chat was so labored, so prefabricated, that this obviously agreed-upon announcement avoided the more interesting follow-up questions, such as where does Taylor Thomas think the rumor came from and why is he so adamant about denying it?

One thing that struck me most forcefully was that, beyond vintage cars, you never get a sense of what Leno likes — what his tastes are — the way you know from Letterman’s banter that Dave gets a kick out of, say, the music of Warren Zevon or the movie Jackie Brown or kibitzing with his old stand-up-comic buddies George Miller and John Witherspoon. The result is a study in contrasting behavior: In taking on the mantle of Tonight Show host, Leno willingly sacrificed his free will for the sake of tradition and ratings; in being denied that mantle that he wanted so much, Letterman became more willful for the sake of ratings, pride, and, it’s not going too far to say, his sanity.

But I keep slipping back into Lettermanville. In Leno Land, Jay does sniggering bits like jokey corporate mergers — Snickers and Mott’s combine to form the “Snotts” company; Ben-Gay takes over Pokemon to form “Gay Poke” (a juvenile joke that wasn’t, I note, made the same night Taylor Thomas appeared). His monologue, which averaged a glacial 14 minutes the nights I watched, returned again and again to the Clintons’ sex life (Hillary is depicted as cold and sex-starved; Bill is a shameless sybarite) and rumored years-ago drug use by Al Gore and George W. Bush, as well as Bush’s vaunted stupidity (Leno’s niftiest characterization of Bush and Gore: “the cokehead and the Dead-head”). Take away the pandering vulgarity of Leno’s approach, and the wit on display could be mistaken for a lesser-quality late-period Bob Hope variety-show monologue.

Leno’s most unlikable regular feature is “Jaywalking,” in which the host takes to the streets to ask people a simple question and expose their ignorance. (“What’s a baker’s dozen?” “Six.” Har-har.) When he ascends to the studio audience, Leno is so intent on getting out the premise of his bit that he blows the opportunity to engage in the sort of spontaneous “Where’re you from?” comedy at which Letterman excels. The night Leno had a woman in the crowd guessing whether a plastic athletic cup would break when struck by a sledgehammer wielded by a “circus strongman,” the tee-hee jockstrap joke took so long to set up and fall flat, I felt like screaming, “Move it on already!”

I wonder whether Letterman has spent any part of his recuperation watching The Tonight Show; I hope so, since I can think of no better inspiration to get out of bed and start showing Leno once again just how the job should be done. D

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