Jay Leno’s comedy legacy is almost entirely tarnished from his run on The Tonight Show. By now, every critic has danced and spit on the grave of his run on the NBC institution. Very few people will ever debate that Leno did much of anything other than continue to want that show for the sole purpose of doing the longest monologue ever and almost nothing else.
We hope that his show going down in flames leads to a new spirit of competitive balance. Letterman is sort of on his own island at the Ed Sullivan Theater, but everyone else in late night — from Conan to Fallon, to Ferguson, Kimmel and Stewart, to even Chelsea Handler — seems to be more or less agreeable to one another. We’re likely not about to head into a gigantic Kimmel-Fallon-Letterman feud at 11:30 p.m. ET.
However, there’s another legacy that’s very much up in the air: Leno’s spot as late night TV’s ultimate heel. Will there be another dog that we’ll kick as much as ol’ Bigjaw? Can any of the current crop of late night hosts become as famously loathed? Right now, most of the shows in late night are fairly well-liked. (Seth Meyers is wait and see, but he’ll get more than a fair shot.)
So who stands a shot at being late night’s new favorite punching bag? A few possible candidates.
Kimmel probably emerged from the Late Night Wars of 2009-10 as the biggest winner. An audience that had thought him a frat boy comic saw him as one of the biggest agitators in the anti-Leno camp. His interview on Leno’s 10 p.m. show is still one of the most brutal things ever.
That said, while Kimmel occasionally snags headlines for his faux-feud with Matt Damon and occasional elaborate pranks, you have to wonder if there’s much to his show beyond that. It’s usually the weakest (in a pretty weak field) in terms of monologue, and outside of Damon and Kanye West, when’s the last time you saw a Kimmel clip go truly viral?
Plus, there’s that whole thing where the nation of China hates him. That’s a lot of haters, almost a Leno-sized amount.
There are still people who refuse to think of Jimmy Fallon as anything other than the guy who giggled at Horatio Sanz on Saturday Night Live. While the credibility of The Roots and genuine enthusiasm kept Late Night running for a while, Fallon turned the franchise into an interesting little variety show. He openly, necessarily gave the internet a giant hug and showed a skill for getting celebrities to step outside their typical comfort zone.
That said, the last guy who tried to take over for Leno received accusations of trying to dull down his act, and it’s not as if Fallon was very edgy to begin with. The use of Will Smith and U2 as opening guests, as well as Fallon’s unending polite genuflect at the throne of Leno in his last weeks, is also concerning.
Will Fallon still be the goofball who plays beer pong and raps with Justin Timberlake? Or will his Tonight Show become Leno’s Tonight Show: an empty, obvious attempt to pander to whatever’s left of the television watching masses?
Letterman is, of course, a late-night institution, and the idol of pretty much everyone left doing the job past 11 o’ clock, a hero of alternative comedy. That said, his show is more pleasant than actually funny these days. While he’ll occasionally bring out the in-the-news politician for a solid interview, Dave is more than clearly on autopilot.
There’s also a chance that he may just hang around long enough to see himself become the villain. Now the oldest participant in the late night game by a wide margin with Leno’s departure, he shows no signs of stopping, and the guy at 12:30 doesn’t have interest in taking the job. Dave is a hero to many comics, but how much longer until his show starts taking the brunt of the criticism his old nemesis got?
What, like you think he won’t come back? He’ll find somewhere to tell jokes, whether it’s CNN or some major cable station somewhere. Hell, maybe Fox will finally decide to take a flier. Leno will never truly go away! Cable networks will hire his hologram to churn out OJ jokes until the end of time!