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Jay Leno's Legacy: He Was Always Watchable

Legacies aren’t written by fans, at least not exclusively. They’re co-authored by fans, detractors, casual observers and members of the media. They’re over-simplified, woefully incomplete averages, but an overwhelming majority of the time, they’re not wrong. Think of them like figure skating scores at the Winter Olympics. You throw out the highs. You throw out the lows. You’re left with something at least vaguely near the right answer.

Jay Leno was watchable.

If tombstones were honest, that’s what his would read. For more than two decades, he walked onto The Tonight Show stage and he delivered acceptable performance after acceptable performance. Apart from the most invested David Letterman supporters or family members of Richard Jewell, pretty much any person in the United States, regardless of age, could turn on Leno and find him amusing enough not to change the channel. From Headlines to Jaywalking, his bits were almost always blandly amusing and extremely simple to follow. They could be watched in their entirety or joined in the middle with very little dropoff in enjoyment levels. If you had an odd twenty minutes before bed, it could always be filled with Leno. If you didn’t feel like changing the channel after the local news, The Tonight Show was never bad enough to make you change your mind.

Jay Leno was watchable.

This might sound pretty insulting. From a certain perspective, it definitely is. No one grows up dreaming of mediocrity. No one yearns to be acceptable. Men and women who choose to get into the entertainment industry typically do so because they want to be loved and admired. In fact, I’m not sure there’s been a single late night host in the last twenty years who hasn’t wished he or she had Johnny Carson’s ratings and reviews, but the truth is almost all of these wannabees came and left. They tried new formats. They pushed the envelope in more interesting ways. They swore, insulted, blurred the lines of good taste and bantered with more aggression than Leno ever did, and viewers collectively said, “Thanks but no thanks.”

Jay Leno was watchable.

And watchability is popular. We love to talk about the Late Night Wars, but the truth is Leno won the battle for the ratings way more often than not over the two plus decades he directly competed for viewers with Letterman. In fact, he’ll end his final night by claiming the sixty-seventh consecutive weekly victory over Letterman. No doubt he’ll hang his hat on that, and he should. Critics, awards shows and even his peers may have been more kind to his counterpart, but Americans with remote controls were most definitely not. That’s probably because Jay knew what worked, and he was never above working really hard for a laugh.

Jay Leno was watchable.

While Letterman and Kimmel prefer to spend as much time as possible with their guests or goofy new bits, Leno always favored the monologue. So, he lengthened it. He used it as his chance to comment on the random issues viewers were actually thinking about in that exact moment. The jokes were new every night, but the hit ratio was not. For a stand-up comedian, standing in front of a crowd and delivering daily zingers is a whole lot more predictable than going in a lot of high concept directions. That unpredictability leads to them falling on their faces more often. It leads to them being unwatchable, something Leno has never and will never be. Because he wouldn’t let himself fail. Ever. Dead air to him was death. So, he would mug. He would recycle jokes. He would make faces. He would do anything to make people laugh in that individual moment. That perspective won him fans, won him the best guests, won him ratings wars and won him billions of smiles, but it also earned him a legacy that’s not as flowery as he would have hoped.

Jay Leno was watchable, in all the best and worst ways.

Mack Rawden

Enthusiastic about Clue, case-of-the-week mysteries, the NBA and cookies at Disney World. Less enthusiastic about the pricing structure of cable, loud noises and Tuesdays.