Something intriguing has been happening at the “Tonight Show” with the content of host Jay Leno’s humor. The jokes that are flying are going where no late-night hosts have gone before.
Leno’s late-night TV colleagues, for the most part, have been blatantly partisan, particularly in the manner in which their material has been written.
Leno’s peers have made the occasional reference to President Obama within the context of their jokes; however, in a similar vein to the mainstream media, they have been perfunctory at best in their targeting of Obama or his administration, reserving their sharpest comedic barbs for the GOP.
Not that Leno has shied away from making jokes at the expense of Republicans. An October 2012 study released by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) indicated that, much like his competitors, Leno ribbed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney more than he did Obama.
Still, in an earlier study, the CMPA revealed that Leno had told Obama jokes about twice as many times as his late-night rival David Letterman had.
When it comes to the president and his policies, it is the candid commentary that is imbedded in Leno’s humor that is distinguishing him from his competitors.
Comedic material has the ability to carry out a journalist’s mandate to “speak truth to power” in a way that no other form of communication can match. Lenny Bruce, the famed stand-up comedian who routinely pushed the boundaries of free speech, once described humor as “the only honest art form.”
Bruce also postulated, “Today's comic is not doing an act. The audience assumes he's telling the truth.”
Interestingly, Leno’s jokes have been taking aim at President Obama’s policies and the “Tonight Show” host appears to be going after some of the same uncomfortable truths that prior to now only conservative talk show hosts would dare to speak freely about.
Leno quipped about some remarks that the president had made at a recent press conference in which he alluded to his first term promise to close the facility at Guantanamo.
Leno set the joke up by saying, “President Obama held a press conference today. He said he still wants to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, but he doesn't know how to do it.”
The late-night comic then snapped out the following zinger: “He should do what he always does. Declare it a small business and tax it out of existence.”
Before the White House Correspondents’ Dinner took place, Leno told the following joke: “All five living presidents will gather for the opening of the George W. Bush presidential library. President Obama says he hopes he can pick up some ideas for when he builds his. It's going to be called the ‘Blame George W. Bush Presidential Library.’”
Somehow the comedic material ended up being woven into Obama’s presentation at the D.C. event.
Some of Leno’s witticism, which was related to immigration reform, contained a subtext that was able to convey more in a few lines than most political pundits are able to say in an entire cable news face-off.
“The Associated Press, the largest newsgathering outlet in the world, will no longer use the term ‘illegal immigrant.’ That is out. They will now use the phrase ‘undocumented Democrat,’” Leno quipped.
Last year, following the election, Leno used his monologue to skewer both the president and the condition of the economy. “Good news for the economy,” he chimed. “President Obama is out of town.”
During the same show, he commented on Obama’s penchant for spending as well as the administration’s handling of taxpayer’s money, saying, “Well, the U.S. Postal Service reported that it had an annual loss of almost $16 billion. They’re losing money faster than Obama can spend it.”
Leno even threw out a joke that was at the expense of NBC’s sibling network, MSNBC. After sidekick Rickey Minor asked how bad the economy was, Leno gave a series of comedic answers that began with the phrase “The economy is so bad . . .”
Two of the answers were editorials that posed as gags. “The economy is so bad MSNBC had to lay off 300 Obama spokesmen. That’s how bad it’s gotten,” Leno said. Another answer lamented that “the economy is so bad President Obama sent Susan Rice out to defend it.”
Speaking of the U.N. ambassador, no other late-night comedian has touched upon the Benghazi scandal as much as Leno has. Back in October 2012, before the presidential election had taken place, Leno said, “More problems for General Petraeus. After searching the home of his mistress Paula Broadwell, the FBI said it found classified material on her personal computer.”
Pausing a moment for effect, Leno then said, “In fact, agents said she had more information about Benghazi than our U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. We should have talked to her.”
The Obama administration’s response to the September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate also prompted Leno to crack, “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is back. Not for gays in the military. It’s President Obama’s new policy for questions about Libya: Don’t ask, don’t tell!”
After the November 2012 election, Leno continued with the Benghazi theme. “And this week, CBS News became the first news organization besides Fox to ask President Obama, ‘Who changed the Benghazi talking points?’” the late-night host said, adding the punch line, “See, this is very dangerous to the White House if journalists should suddenly start asking real questions.”
Leno’s humor contains substantive messages that might pose a danger to someone who lacks the clout to buck the Hollywood infrastructure. It’s no problem for Leno, though. A freedom that oftentimes accompanies success has been won, and Leno now looks as if he has decided to go rogue.
In March 2013, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that NBC was planning an exit strategy for Leno. The stunning news was that despite Leno’s hosting of the most-watched late-night show, he would be handing the keys to the “Tonight Show” studio over to Jimmy Fallon. The transition would occur at the expiration of Leno's contract in September 2014.
Leno is apparently not the kind of person who is itching to retire. Reports indicate he’s not in it for the money, “it” being his hosting duties on the “Tonight Show.” He does not use the salary he receives to pay for his day-to-day expenses but instead lives on the money he earns from a rigorous schedule of stand-up comedy gigs.
As was widely discussed during the Conan O’Brien fiasco, the most likely place that Leno may ultimately land is at a late-night Fox network show, which would be reliant on a positive reception by the Fox affiliate stations across the country.
In fact, Fox affiliate board chairman Steve Pruett recently told The New York Post that if the network were to present “the right business plan, the affiliate board would be interested.”
The Rupert Murdoch-owned network may be the perfect fit for the bold, honest humor that Leno has been delivering.
James Hirsen, J.D., M.A., in media psychology, is a New York Times best-selling author, media analyst, and law professor. Visit Newsmax.TV Hollywood. Read more reports from James Hirsen — Click Here Now.
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