Tag Archives: Jay Leno

The Late-Night Wars: Politics by Other Means

No, I probably won’t be watching tonight when Jay Leno returns to the Tonight Show, but I’m still fascinated with how this whole mess is going to play out. Certainly, the late-night wars are far from over, with Jay once again going head to head with longtime-rival-turned-Super-Bowl-buddy David Letterman, or with the deposed Conan O’Brien possibly barnstorming America with a live show before his likely face-off against both Dave and Jay if he lands on Fox this fall. The struggle is still of interest because. as seemed clear during the depths of the public Jay-vs.-everyone-else battle that played out in January, this is about a lot more than which pampered white guy gets to tell jokes at 11:35 p.m. It’s about great fault lines criss-crossing both our popular and political culture.

Some of those fault lines are: Continue reading



Filed under 2008 Election, Arts, Barack Obama, Feuds, Late Night TV, Media, TV

Conan O’Bama

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Remember when George W. Bush became president, and the pundits said that, at last, the grownups were now in charge? (And how did that work out, by the way?) It’s a lot easier to imagine that the grownups are in charge now that the cool, seemingly unflappable, roll-up-your-sleeves Barack Obama is president, and when he took office, I felt a surge of almost familial pride. At last, the reins of power were passing to someone roughly my age (Obama is about five years older than I am.)

I felt a similar emotion this week when Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson had made the forum into the voice of national consensus; Jay Leno tried to maintain that role even as consensus crumbled around him (we’re a much more fragmented, factionalized people now, not just in terms of our politics, but also in our tastes in pop culture and our countless entertainment options). Now that desk was passing to someone of my generation (Conan is four years older than I am), and it felt like a momentous, torch-passing occasion.

The president himself seemed to acknowledge the similarity between these two transitions in his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams this week (see above video). It was a puzzling moment; Time columnist James Poniewozik seemed to find it crass that Williams spent valuable face time with the president getting Obama to plug an entertainment event on Williams’ network, and O’Brien himself wondered why the leader of the free world should be devoting any attention to Conan’s career move. But such pluggery is standard procedure these days for TV news (which is more entertainment than news anyway, with the cotton-candy puffery throughout Williams’ primetime special as just another example), and the fact that Obama responded to Williams’ prompt not by saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” but by deadpanning a good joke about it without missing a beat indicates that, not only is Obama as media-savvy a chief executive as we’ve ever seen, but also is thoroughly conversant with the ironic, absurdist humor that is Conan’s (and our generation’s) preferred mode of expression. Continue reading

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Filed under 2008 Election, Barack Obama, Late Night TV, Media, Movies, Music, TV

Obama’s ‘Special’ Visit to Leno

Not sure why, aside from his wince-inducing Special Olympics joke (about 20 minutes into the clip below), President Obama’s visit to Jay Leno’s Tonight Show last night was considered such a shocking breach of presidential protocol. It’s just like when the Republicans derided Obama, puzzlingly, last summer for being too much of a “celebrity.” As if America didn’t love its celebrities, or thought there was any big deal about a presidential politician appearing on a late-night talk show. I don’t remember such complaints when Arnold Schwarzenegger (who warmly embraced Obama yesterday) announced his gubernatorial candidacy on Leno’s stage, or when John McCain announced his presidential candidacy on David Letterman’s show. Yes, Obama is now a sitting president, not a candidate, but yesterday’s visit was certainly a campaign whistlestop, and one as canny as any media-op staged by Ronald Reagan Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush.

Maybe old-school media gatekeepers are just as upset about this as GOP politicians are — after all, Leno is trespassing on their turf. But they ceded that turf to Leno, Letterman and other entertainers long ago when they allowed political chat shows (both the Sunday morning network interrogations and the nightly cable screamfests) to degenerate into pro-wrestling matches. Also, when they abdicated the role of tough, probing investigative reporter to the likes of Leno, Letterman, and Jon Stewart. The line between political journalism and entertainment has long been hopelessly blurred, and it’s awfully disingenuous to start complaining about it now. Hey, pols and press, do you want TV to take politics more seriously and stop treating it as a division of show business? Physicians, heal thyselves.

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Filed under 2008 Election, Barack Obama, Media, TV