Leno Unbound

by Michael Walsh
Is the folksy Tonight Show host a secret conservative? No, but he plays one on TV.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran in July 2013. To mark Jay Leno’s final sign-off this week, we reprint it below. 

Congratulations to President Obama on being reelected president of the United States. Turns out it is not all bad news for the Republicans. It seems that depression is covered by Obamacare.

As Jay Leno nears the end of his nearly 22-year run as the host of The Tonight Show, the lantern-jawed comic with the thick Boston accent finds himself in an unusual predicament. Having won the War of Johnny Carson’s Succession (1992), successfully fended off a challenge from upstart Conan O’Brien during a brief interregnum (2009–10), and gracefully bowed to the inevitable with the accession of Jimmy Fallon to the late-night throne next year, Leno now finds himself cast in a new role: conservative hero.

Leno’s always played his politics, or lack of them, close to the vest, insisting that his job as host of The Tonight Show is business, not politics. And he’s right, of course. Hard as it may be for younger readers to believe, there was a time in this country when not everything was political, and you could get through one whole day at work without talking about #$%@BUSH!*&@ or Barry with your co-workers.

At the same time, comics used to play their historical role as jesters to the hilt, mocking the Kennedys at the height of Camelot (Vaughn Meader), whaling away at a scowling Tricky Dick (David Frye), impersonating a bumbling Gerald Ford (Chevy Chase) or an inarticulate George H. W. Bush (Dana Carvey). Reagan and Clinton also came in for substantial comic abuse during their administrations, and Will Ferrell made an entire cottage industry out of ridiculing George W. Bush.

And then, with the election of Barack Obama, it all stopped. Suddenly, there was nothing funny about the president of the United States — not his massive ego, his pomposity, his Bush-like inability to speak extemporaneously, his golf game, even his jump shot. “The only person that’s made jokes about President Obama in the last five years is him,” observed comic Colin Quinn. “He has to do it at the White House Correspondents Dinner. That’s how bad it’s gotten.”

Enter Leno Unbound.

One of President Obama’s winning points last night was about how sanctions against Iran are crippling their economy. And believe me, if anyone knows how to cripple an economy, it’s President Obama.

As Leno edges both out the door and perhaps slightly rightward, he’s become an object of derision for the Left. Jay’s appeal to Middle America drives them crazy, since they inherently dislike the good old-fashioned, homey virtues of flyover country that Leno embodies and celebrates in his comedy. Further, there was never anything “post-funny” about Leno — no hip, ironic detachment like David Letterman’s, nor Conan’s wisenheimer Harvard snark. With nothing to lose, Jay seems fresher and freer than he has been in years.

And yet, in a 2004 interview with Nikki Finke, the reigning queen of Hollywood gossip and news, Leno described himself as a liberal (“I’m not conservative. I’ve never voted that way in my life”) and an equal-opportunity jokester who had a grand total of zero Republicans on his writing staff. What he wasn’t, he insisted, was partisan:

You know I did the White House Correspondents Dinner this year, and this is the most partisan crowd. You do a joke about Bush, and half of them sit like this [his hands are in his lap] and the other half are applauding. And then I do Kerry jokes, and half the people are like this [his hands are in his lap again]. It’s like the most juvenile atmosphere you could possibly imagine. And every now and then you do a joke that will cross both sides, so they both laugh.

Getting both sides to laugh has been the secret to Leno’s success for decades, a task made easier by his image as a nice guy, which he is in reality too. When NBC took an axe to The Tonight Show’s $100 million budget last year, he took a major salary cut to keep as many on his staff employed as possible. I had a chance to watch him backstage and on the set in Burbank a few months ago, and it’s clear he engenders strong loyalty from the folks who help make The Tonight Show such a long-running success.

But is Leno a closet conservative? In a town where open conservatives are still fairly rare — there are plenty of conservatives, but with a few prominent exceptions (e.g., Jon Voight), they prefer to keep their politics to themselves — there’s no percentage in coming out if you don’t have to. Should Leno decide to unretire and perhaps join the Fox network (not Fox News) as host of another late-night talk show, it would say absolutely nothing about his politics one way or the other.

Did you hear about this? The IRS has admitted they were targeting conservative groups. President Obama called it outrageous and said he would immediately have his Benghazi investigators look into it.

Okay, that one smarts. And there are signs that even the lefty comics are beginning to take the gloves off; libertarian Bill Maher has been especially tough on the president lately:

President Obama was in Germany and spoke at the Brandenburg Gate, which divided that city during the Cold War. Obama said: “It’s taught me a lot. When I was a kid, West Germany taught me the importance of standing tall, and East Germany taught me the importance of reading everyone’s mail.”

So does that one. The thing you need to understand about Hollywood is that at the creative level, politics is not paramount. Some conservatives who’ve never worked a day in the Industry like to imagine that there’s a vast conspiracy against them, but the fact is, Hollywood rewards good old-fashioned conservative virtues like talent, hard work, and an unwillingness ever to give up.

Just ask Jay Leno. But don’t expect an answer.

— Michael Walsh is a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. Writing as “David Kahane,” he is the author of Rules for Radical Conservatives: Beating the Left at Its Own Game to Take Back America.

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