You can blame Michelle Obama, I think.
Reports popped up all over the place on the weekend that NBC had finally decided to punch Jay Leno's ticket to ride as “Tonight Show” maharajah. By the fall of 2014, said widespread reports, he'd be replaced by Jimmy Fallon as “Tonight Show” host.
There were NBC denials, but the whole thing had the obvious feel of a leaked story.
The timing couldn't possibly have pointed to the first lady more decisively. The clips of her demonstrating “Mom Dancing” with Fallon in drag have been an Internet viral contagion for a couple of weeks now, with the usual reaction that “surely she is the coolest first lady ever!” (Or, at the very least, a whole new kind of first lady that even Hillary Clinton and Jackie Kennedy never prepared us for.)
While Internet social media were all going gaga over the first lady, few of us were thinking specifically about the fallout of her clip for Fallon, whose show got Michelle Obama to be so delightfully funny in the first place, demonstrating various time-honored moves in the venerable domestic art of “Mom Dancing.” (If you haven't seen it yet, YouTube awaits you. Please go there immediately and come back. We'll be happy to wait for you.)
One can imagine NBC executives meeting in secret and saying to each other, “That's it. Look how fresh and universally lovable Fallon's music bits are becoming. We've got to be doing that an hour earlier on the 'Tonight Show' instead of Leno's low-class comedy crud.”
And that, say all manner of reports from very credible sources coast to coast, is what is now set to happen 16 months down the road.
Obviously, it wasn't Michelle Obama's intention to end America's long-standing Leno problem. She was merely being oh-so-funny and oh-so-charming on a very well-placed TV show in service to her continuing campaign to get America moving – particularly American young people who, in her view, have no business being as overweight and obese as they all-too-often are.
An unintended side result of that clip going through the roof of viral Internet approval is that the host of the show that got her to be so delightfully funny – and, yes, cool – in public was himself going to go through the roof of American late night esteem and leave all the splinters and plaster to fall into Leno's sputtering face.
That, I think, is what happened and was confirmed by credible reports from inside sources throughout the weekend.
News of Leno's eventual demise isn't merely a symptom of show business' pronounced penchant for competitive schadenfreude (i.e., pleasure in others' pain). It goes deeper. When it broke, you could, no doubt, find Leno's fellow comedians phoning, chest-bumping and high-fiving each other – or, at the very least, smiling from ear to ear.
Friends of David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, George Lopez, Jimmy Kimmel and Howard Stern, at the very least, would, no doubt, be delighted to confirm their friends' satisfaction at so many authoritative stories about Leno's future decline and fall.
He is, quite frankly, the most unpopular popular success I've ever heard of on TV and has been for years now. Not even Milton Berle was that hated.
Predictably, the more stupid knee-jerk responses to the eventual Fallon-for-Leno replacement stories emphasized ratings king Leno as a demographic drag on NBC late night. The pure, uncut, blockheaded ageism that has become institutionalized in the TV sections of America's Commentariat considered it a victory for (relative) youth against (relative) age.
Yes, Leno is 62.
Far more importantly, he has been awful for years now. The reason that Kimmel, for one, considers Leno a total “sellout” is that Leno is a once-talented comedian who has nakedly done anything and everything for decades – no matter how mediocre and jaw-droppingly unfunny (let us never forget the Dancing Itos during the O.J. trial) – to prevail.
His one truly creative contribution to the late night comedy arsenal – his Jaywalking bits – tells more about his conception of his audience than anything else on the show. He's leading audience laughter at people who don't know who's buried in Grant's Tomb – or who think Europe is in Ohio – and hoping neighbors of those people comprise an audience at home that still thinks he's funny. It's a Steve Allen bit with a nasty spin.
It's Leno's ceaseless mediocrity that so many in America find so dispiriting.
It didn't have to be that way. He got his start in, among other places, a legendary Massachusetts jazz club called Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike and has a public affection for jazz musicians. He brags about opening for Miles Davis. And he began on “Tonight” by employing first-rate jazz players – Branford Marsalis and then Kevin Eubanks – as his bandleaders. At the same time, he has allowed none of their music ethic (with its idealistic faith in the audience) to rub off on him. He is the living representative of television's ability to elevate the Lowest Common Denominator to the Highest Possible Target.
Letterman – who'll be 66 in a few weeks – is old. But he's also revered. He gets awards from the Kennedy Center, and other comics unanimously honor his history, even though his show is, on occasion, even less creative than Leno's.
But his conception of his audience remains high. He isn't the smart-aleck kid in class who can't wait to make fun of the dolts at lunch behind their backs; he's the kid who's smart and generous enough to know all the things he has in common with the dolts. Which is why he's so good at communicating with those who are anything but dolts.
Except for Leno's 10 p.m. catastrophe, Leno has always had the ratings. Letterman – and now Kimmel, too – have always had the love and respect. They're fallible human beings, not careerist joke machines grinding the profession down.
And it now seems that we know approximately when their spiritual triumph will be complete.
“Red Widow”: ABC's new Sunday evening show is about a beautiful mother of four (Radha Mitchell) whose idiot, greedy, drug-running brother gets her mobbed-up husband killed and then gets her indebted to a cold-hearted mob kingpin named Schiller.
It is, by other, better means, the same general idea as Fox's wretched “Mob Doctor” in which a beautiful woman has to work for the mob or else. “Red Widow” is better and has more interesting actors – especially Mitchell, who's a three-and-a-half-star presence on a two-star show. She'll be worth watching weekly. Without her, the show wouldn't be.