Jay Leno's Painful Comeback

The Tonight Show host’s return to the 11:30 slot in the late-night lineup proved that the flailing comic no longer eases our daily anxieties; he now provokes them.

A not-so-funny thing. Jay Leno, the comedian for the middle-class, has come to represent the middle-class experience. Watching him flounder and founder through his attempt at a comeback last night, you felt that he has lost the certainty that anyone is listening to him, that he feels the country has moved past him.

But it was hard to expand sympathy for what Leno’s demographic might be feeling to Leno himself. I always liked Leno: I met him once, introduced myself as the television critic for the New Republic, and told him how much I admired his show. “Well, you’re the only critic who does,” he said with a rueful smile. That just won my underdog heart, let me tell you. But after seeing him last night with his tired jokes, embarrassing attempts at appearing edgy and hip—the awful sex jokes, the uncharacteristic and clumsy political-insult humor—and that odd passiveness as a breathtakingly obnoxious Jamie Foxx commandeered his show, I’m ready to join the Leno-disdaining mob.

It was appropriate, I guess, that Leno had on Lindsey Vonn, who won her gold medals first and then crashed in her later races. Leno is also tumbling.

Shame on NBC for putting this gifted comic in such a humiliating position. It’s like laying someone off, getting rid of the position he had, and then hiring him back. Not only did Leno seem to be wandering around his own show with nothing to do, but he has been put in the painfully postmodern position of being condemned to be his own guest. Just about everything he said seemed like a self-doubting interrogation of his current position. “Isn’t 11:30 a lot more fun?” he asked Kevin Eubanks after one risque joke. NBC was “going downhill,” he said in a monologue joke about the Olympics. At one point, Leno even seemed to drop any pretense of humor to sincerely criticize NBC for forcing him to say that the cast of “Jersey Shore” was making a “special appearance” on the show. It was like listening to Lenny Bruce go on and on about his obscenity trial. Leno’s obsession with his bosses isn’t funny anymore. It’s cause for concern.

Watch the 5 Funniest Moments from Leno’s ReturnThere was even a long segment about Leno looking for a new desk that had him supposedly knocking on random doors in Burbank and asking people if he could try out their desks for his show. The idea was to literally put Leno back into the late-night living room and to prove his relevance to his audience, but the effect was to make transparent his anxiety over not being able to get back in the living room, and his fear of not being relevant at all. “I just got the show back,” he later protested to the manic Foxx, trying to get the actor/singer to calm down, even as Foxx was taking the show away from him, far away.

There was something sad about seeing Leno’s waning powers last night that went beyond Leno. As he walked out onto the stage through faux-imperial pillars, you felt that the set’s parody of cultural power was poignantly apt. Leno once stood for comedy with broad appeal; now, comedy, like everything else in popular culture, has been broken up into narrow, customized brands. That has its breakthroughs, and its brilliance, but something is lost when humor becomes as fragmented as politics. It was appropriate, I guess, that Leno had on Lindsey Vonn, who won her gold medals first and then crashed in her later races. Leno is also tumbling.

When Foxx accidentally knocked his mug off of Leno’s desk, I thought of an old Borscht-Belt joke. Question: What did the Jewish-American Princess say when she broke a Ming vase? Answer: It’s okay, I’m alright. Instead of displaying what would have been, in context, a healthy egotism as the mug fell, Leno looked as vulnerable as a child. He’s not okay, and he’s not alright, and he no longer offers to his audience an escape from their daily circumstances. Rather, he is a reminder of them.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.