Murphy’s Law – Jay Leno, a study in mediocrity

Joel Murphy

Joel Murphy

“If there is any justice in the world, Leno will tank hard when faced with tough primetime competition …”

Murphy’s Law – Boob Tube Breakdown 2009

It’s no secret that I am not a Jay Leno fan.

Everything about his show and his onscreen persona bug me. His brightly-colored set. His safe and predictable jokes. His phony way of interacting with guests. Everything he does comes across so calculated – like his every move is based on feedback from focus groups and notes from network executives.

Comedy is supposed to be edgy and dangerous. A good talk show should have an “I don’t know what’s going to happen next” vibe. David Letterman and Conan O’Brien excel at that. Most nights on their shows, when things go wrong it’s often funnier than the actual preplanned bits. There is something more real about their shows. They are vulnerable, human.

Which is why I have always been frustrated by Jay Leno’s tremendous success. It’s the same feeling I get when Epic Movie or Big Momma’s House 2 or All About Steve have huge opening weekends at the box office. It’s disheartening knowing that so many people enthusiastically seek out the lowest common denominator. Mediocrity shouldn’t be rewarded.

I was quite happy when Conan O’Brien was given the keys to The Tonight Show. However, I was less than enthused when I found out that instead of having Jay Leno ride off into the sunset, NBC decided to give him his own primetime talk show. They were worried Leno would go to ABC or Fox to directly compete with Conan (since apparently he wasn’t content to simply stay home and count his piles of cash while sitting inside one of his midlife crisis inspired luxury sports cars).

Giving Leno a primetime slot did some very bad things.

One, it completely overshadowed Conan’s promotion. It was like the old Super Mario Bros. game – Conan defeated Bowser only to discover that the princess was in another castle – a castle with a cushy 10 p.m. time slot. Leno still got all of the headlines and was still getting better guests. Instead of promoting O’Brien, it was like NBC demoted the 11:30 time slot.

The other bad thing that happened when NBC gave Jay Leno a primetime slot was the network lost five hours of primetime space. That means one-third of the original programming time per week is devoted to Leno. So five to 10 shows didn’t get the greenlight this year because of Leno. Chuck, one of the best shows on network television today, barely made the cut.

So when Leno’s new show finally premiered, I kept my fingers crossed that it would tank, but I wasn’t terribly optimistic. Even with primetime competition, I was worried that the mouthbreathers of the world would still flock to Leno.

His first night on the air was a big success. More than 18 million people tuned in to see the premiere episode of The Jay Leno Show. Of course, there were a few factors contributing to that big number. For one thing, it was the premiere, so you have people tuning in to the first night out of curiosity who won’t stick around in the long run. Secondly, through sheer luck, the episode featured Kanye West in his first public appearance since his infamous “I’mma let you finish” rant at the VMAs (West had just been schedule to perform a song on Leno’s show, but because of the incident, he ended up giving an emotional apology on the show).

But the biggest factor in Leno’s success the first night was that he didn’t really face any competition. The Jay Leno Show premiered a week earlier than the other network’s new shows, meaning that Leno was going up against reruns.

Since that first night, Leno’s ratings have dipped, which was to be expected. But his first real test came this Monday, when he had to compete against the season premieres of CSI: Miami and Castle. And, I am happy to report that Leno got his ass kicked. CSI: Miami won the night with 13.73 million viewers (all of them big fans of cheesy one-liners followed by the dramatic removal of sunglasses) and Castle was in second place with 9.43 million viewers (many of them too distracted by Nathan Fillion’s handsomeness to even follow the plot). Leno was in a distant third with 5.67 million viewers.

(Oddly enough, the same night that Leno was getting hammered in primetime, David Letterman beat Conan O’Brien for the first time in the younger audience categories, scoring his biggest overnight ratings in four years thanks to a visit from President Barack Obama. Poor Conan O’Brien just can’t catch a break.)

So Leno failed against real competition. Sure, it was only the first night, but we can expect this to keep happening. While Castle has a loyal following, it isn’t exactly a huge hit, so the fact that it was able to beat Leno so soundly shows that people will bail on Leno in primetime if given an alternative. It’s looking like Leno will have many third place finishes in his future. Chalk up a win for the good guys.

But before you light up those victory cigars while being serenaded by the fat lady, I have a bit of bad news my friends. NBC isn’t going to cancel Leno anytime soon. They don’t care if he finishes in third place every night because his show is so cheap to produce, much cheaper than a sitcom or drama. It may be a pile of shit, but it’s a cheap pile of shit. And besides, NBC is used to being in last place in the ratings – at least this way they are saving money by doing it.

So I’m not really sure how to feel here. On the one hand, I feel vindicated now that Leno is getting beaten down by real primetime competition. On the other hand, he is basically getting a free pass for his failure because his show is so cheap to produce. I would love to think that at the very least, the poor ratings will eat away at Leno – but let’s be honest, if he actually cared about anything besides the money, his show wouldn’t be a giant pile of mediocrity in the first place.

However, even if his show stays on the air for years while continually finishing in last place in the ratings, perhaps Leno will finally become what I always hoped he would – irrelevant.

Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at

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