Everyone’s definitions of comedy are different. Poll a random group of strangers about who should win an award for being best at being funny, and the answers can range from Louis CK to a football to the groin.
However, if there’s one figure who’s elicited no amount of distain from people who are ostensibly his peers, it’s Jay Leno. "As a comedian, you can’t not have disdain for what he’s done. He totally sold out," Jimmy Kimmel told Rolling Stone last year, and many agree with him. General consensus is that while Leno is one of the hardest-working stand-ups in the business, his name will never be mentioned in connection with the greats, like Richard Pryor or George Carlin, except as to serve as poor contrast.
Which is why it was a genuine shock when it was announced that the now-retired "Tonight Show" host is this year’s recipient of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor, a prestigious award that the comedian will be handed in a broadcast gala this October.
There are a number of reasons to find Leno’s selection to be offensive, ranging from the deeply significant to the petty. There’s plenty about Leno to mock, after all — the obsession with classic cars, the cheap man-on-the-street gags, and of course his role in the passive-aggressive maelstrom that was Conan O’Brien’s "Tonight Show" ascent and descent. (The AV Club’s headline announcing the news that Leno would be receiving the Mark Twain prize: "Jay Leno to receive Mark Twain humor prize, step down, receive it again.")
Leno didn’t start off this way — in the 1980s, Leno had an edge that made him one of the form’s more exciting performers. But that edge is dull as butter today, replaced instead by an "average Joe" persona, highlighted by his love of bottom-common-denominator punchlines and off-duty Canadian tuxedo wardrobe.
Comedians are of course judged on the quality of their comedy — but it’s also worth considering the quality of their contributions to the art. And it’s here’s where things get galling.
The fact is that the Mark Twain Prize has gone to the right people before: Past winners include Carl Reiner, Tina Fey and Bill Cosby. For the most part, the honor comes to a comedian who isn’t necessarily working actively — Richard Pryor and Carol Burnett were well into retirement when they were honored, that certainly applies to Leno, who’s keeping up with an active stand-up schedule but is a long way from five nights a week on NBC. But it also usually goes to a comedian who’s made a real impact on the community.
Has Leno done that? Not in any measurable way. He did create a model for late night that emphasized a good time over a hard line — something for Jon Stewart to react against on "The Daily Show," and something for Jimmy Fallon to improve upon with both "Late Night" and his "Tonight Show" takeover.
But beyond peddling rimshots and tossing softballs for 21 years, Leno simply hasn’t contributed much. One simple, but vital, way he could have made a real difference wouldn’t have been at all hard — all he would have had to do is follow in Johnny Carson’s footsteps and, on a semi-regular basis, feature young stand-ups instead of musical guests on his show during his "Tonight Show" tenure.
In the 1980s, performing for Carson was almost a guaranteed path to success — comedian does five minutes at the end of "The Tonight Show," Carson likes it enough to invite said comedian to the couch for a quick chat, comedian wakes up the next morning with sitcom offers.
"The Tonight Show" kicked off the careers of Ellen Degeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne, Bill Maher, Louie Anderson, Steven Wright and who knows how many others — but it’s a tradition that Leno did not continue once he took over, instead favoring bands promoting their latest singles.
In fact, over the last fourteen months of Leno’s "Tonight Show" run, exactly two stand-ups performed on the show: Jason Collings and Adam Hunter. By comparison, Jimmy Fallon’s "Tonight Show" beat that in its first two months. And David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson regularly bring on up-and-coming stand-ups whose careers benefit enormously from the national exposure.
In the end, after over two decades on television, Leno’s defining moment as a host remains asking Hugh Grant "what you were thinking?" when Grant was caught with a prostitute. That happened in 1995. If that moment of television was a person, it would be old enough to enlist in the military.
It’s a moment that is not only extremely dated (I think we’ve all forgiven Grant by now) but notable not because it reflects Leno’s house style, but because it went so completely against the grain of what the "Tonight Show" host had defined as his nice guy persona.
That persona has always felt a little false; Mark Twain, in comparison to other literary figures of his day, was also an Average Joe type who tailored his language for less-educated readers, but there was a greater social conscience underlying his work: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," for example, is taught in schools for its broader social messages.
Meanwhile, in a statement regarding the award, Leno said this: “What an honor! I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s. In fact, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is one of my favorite books!”
Welcome to the 21st century, where a comedian’s attempt to sound humble and "aw, shucks" means a joke at the expense of a great writer’s legacy.
(And also, "A Tale of Two Cities"? That’s not even a funny title. If you’re going to pretend to confuse Twain’s work with that of other great 19th century authors, might I suggest Henry James’s "The Turn of the Screw"?)
Come October, the Kennedy Center will throw a nice party for Jay Leno. Leno’s friends will come out and praise his long career and comedy stylings; Leno will probably not wear a denim jacket, and there will probably be some jokes about his car collection. It’ll be a lovely evening. And it will contribute just as much to the world of American comedy as Jay Leno ever has.
Additional research by Melina Gills.