“I did it when, you know, Clinton was horny and Bush was dumb, and it was just a little easier,” said Jay Leno, asked by Al Roker on Wednesday whether he missed hosting “The Tonight Show.” An echo of frustrations from older fans longing for the days of Johnny Carson, Leno’s interview earned him a swift and friendly citation on President Trump’s Twitter.
Trump is right that Leno diagnosed his successors in late-night with a troubling case of one-sidedness. But it’s hardly proven fatal, and Leno knows that.
In a less-circulated moment from Wednesday’s interview, Leno basically conceded that today’s late-night hosts are giving people—some people, at least—what they seem to want. “The theory when we did the show was, you just watched the news, we’ll make fun of the news, and get your mind off the news,” he remembered. “Now, people just wanna be on the news all the time.”
That, of course, doesn’t mean the shows are funnier. It may actually mean viewers are watching them almost as more palatable, network versions of “The Daily Show.” That is to say, outlets where they can get their laughs but also get their politics, even if makes for a different product. Appetites are different, as is the dramatically diversified television landscape. Late-night ratings aren’t what they used to be.
Interestingly, Leno’s observation comes as Stephen Colbert beat Jimmy Fallon in the demo for the first time ever just last week. “For the first time, Mr. Colbert’s ‘Late Show’ on CBS has drawn a bigger Nielsen rating point among young adult viewers than any other late-night talk show,” The New York Times reported on March 5.
Colbert, of course, has transformed his show into a highly political, bitterly anti-Trump program, and the shift has been good for ratings. The Jimmys, both Fallon and Kimmel, may be less intense about it, but still eagerly devote solid time on their shows to anti-Trump fodder. Ratings for all three were down in 2018.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with mocking the president. It’s the duty of comedians to skewer politicians. We need them to do that. But boosted ratings don’t necessarily mean the shows’ comedic offerings have improved. Leno seemed to gently hint he believes they haven’t.
“People say, ‘Oh, it must be easy to do jokes with Trump,'” he explained. “No, it’s actually harder because the punch line of the joke used to be ‘That’s like the president with a porn star.’ Well, now the president is with a porn star. Where do you go with that? How do you get more outrageous than that?”
Colbert is nowhere near as funny as he was during the Bush administration. His Trump humor is mostly cheap and straining for shock value. That’s true of Kimmel as well, though he seems to do it with more amusement than anger. (Both are smug.) Fallon, for his part, still shines brightest outside politics. But not one of them has come up with a good answer to Leno’s question of how to joke about a president like Donald Trump, who embraces the unthinkable and the outrageous—and has a decent sense of humor about it too.
Then again, maybe high-quality comedy isn’t what today’s late-night viewers want. This is where Leno’s theory comes back into play. Maybe the people who watch late-night today—a much smaller chunk of the country than when Carson was on—just want another hour of news.
The audience for Trump bashing, trite as it often is, clearly has size enough to boost ratings, and seems to have found a home in late-night for now. (I often wonder how many of David Letterman’s viewers Colbert has retained, or if he’s simply been able to replace and exceed those who’ve fled.)
Of course, it may also be true that all the politics has driven plenty of other viewers away. Maybe late-night doesn’t have to be for everyone anymore, not in a world where the options after 11:30 are endless, and where you can watch Netflix just as easily as CBS. Maybe it’s destined to become just another niche.