I haven’t watched Jay Leno on The Tonight Show since I lived in an apartment with no cable and needed something to help me fall asleep. I watched last night’s show because rumor has it that Jay could be out of a job this time next year, replaced by a younger man with a penchant for songs about Mario Kart and dancing with First Ladies. What did I learn? Leno’s script hasn’t changed much since he started his gig almost 30 years ago.
His star has fallen pretty quickly. It was just four years ago that NBC wanted him on our television screens five nights a week, and now executives don’t appear to want him at all. But the problem isn’t really Leno. The whole genre of late-night talk show needs a makeover, and Leno is only the tip of the iceberg.
All of his routines, from the monolog to celebrity interviews to comedy sketches, are done better by someone on the Internet. Do you enjoy watching stand-up? Your favorite comedians are available on demand at Funny or Die. No need to wait for late night. Want to know if your favorite celebrity got a new dog/baby/movie project? Follow ’em on Twitter! Back in the day, I remember recording my favorite celebrities on VHS so I wouldn’t miss a single detail of their interviews. Now I can talk to LeVar Burton directly, should I choose. Do you like watching ordinary people embarrass themselves? See: The Entire Internet.
Jimmy Fallon might provide a temporary fix for late-night TV. He’s younger, sillier, and spices things up with music (by the Roots, no less) and impressions when the interviews get a little slow. As a Saturday Night Live alum, he mixes in sketch comedy with stand=up, and that allows for dozens of watchable clips on Hulu and YouTube that still have the Fallon brand attached.
On his most recent show, he had a sketch where he plays a sportscaster who “makes terrible things happen with his mind.” He pretended to make people fall off bikes in YouTube clips through the power of concentration. Fallon is more like your goofball little brother than a serious TV host, and that makes it fun to watch clips along with him. Plus, Fallon includes Twitter in his routine, blending Internet humor with broadcast humor. Leno’s surprise at seeing a woman flap her arms in front of her face leads me to suspect he has never actually seen the Internet.
It’s likely that the late-night talk genre will be the last shows standing (along with game shows) when the entire broadcast system breaks down. They are infinitely cheaper to produce than Game of Thrones, and can be used as a marketing tool for a network’s other projects. But here’s the rub: Even if Fallon is better than Leno at being an Internet-ready host, late-night network shows still have to try to be universally appealing to pull in big advertising dollars.
Internet humor doesn’t have to appeal to everyone, just a few people who tell all of their like-minded friends. Jon Cozart’s “After Ever After,” a song about unhappy Disney princesses, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but more than 5 million people thought it was worth watching. The measures of comedic success are changing. You don’t need to have mass appeal to be a major star. NBC can change the lineup over and over, but as long as the network remains focused on the middle of the road, luring conservative Midwestern bankers in equal numbers as lefty Vermont farmers, it’s impossible to imagine The Tonight Show having any real edge — or competing with the cornucopia of options the Tnternet provides.