Friends and admirers said all the right things in presenting Jay Leno the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for comedy, an event commemorated with a 90-minute PBS special.
Leno “did it clean. He did it with dignity,” said Robert Klein.
“Thanks for making standup first,” said “The Daily Show’s” Al Madrigal.
And yet, watching Leno take this victory lap, it was hard not to think that, strictly in terms of the comedy world, his path might have been easier — or at least simpler — had he not won the succession battle that embittered David Letterman, forced many of their brethren and those in the media to choose sides, and placed a kind of strange asterisk on Leno’s legacy.
Leno, after all, was known as the comic’s comic before “The Tonight Show” rigmarole — the guy who not only toured constantly, but who could be counted on to make appearances on Letterman’s show, and hit it out of the park time and again.
Winning “The Tonight Show,” however, brought scorn Leno’s way that always seemed ill-suited to his character and demeanor. Suddenly he was the interloper who denied Letterman his lifelong dream, then the one who took the show back from Conan O’Brien. While some contemporaries have rallied to Leno’s defense — witness Bill Maher’s passionate comments when inducting him into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame — there will always be those who remember Leno more as a usurper than the genial fellow who tackled stepping into Johnny Carson’s shoes and presided over “The Tonight Show” for nearly a generation.
In an alternate universe in which Leno wasn’t awarded “Tonight,” perceptions of him might have been vastly different — beyond just giving the New York Times’ Bill Carter more trouble landing a movie deal for his latenight book.
Odds are Leno would have still fronted a latenight show, but he’d have had to create one at CBS, as Letterman wound up doing. And it’s likely both would have thrived, perhaps even more so given how Leno’s blue-collar comedic persona meshes with the Eye network’s audience profile.
Screwing around with existing timelines is always tricky (just go see a “Terminator” movie, or “Interstellar”), but it’s also worth noting that in terms of compatibility, O’Brien’s sensibility is much closer to that of Letterman than that of Leno, with the red-headed host, like many in his generation, having grown up admiring Letterman’s inventiveness in the same way Letterman idolized Carson.
Wherever one’s loyalties reside on the Jay-Dave spectrum, there has always been a certain incongruity between the Leno who kept finding himself in the middle of these Shakespearean succession fracases and the comedic workhorse so committed to standup that he still booked 150 appearances or so while hosting “The Tonight Show.”
Although many had a hard time envisioning Leno ever slowing down, he appears to be settling into a kind of comedy emeritus status, forging a congenial relationship with Fallon and pursuing his passions, like hosting a show about cars, “Jay Leno’s Garage,” premiering next year on CNBC.
“He’s not perfect,” Maher said of Leno last March, “but he’s held to a standard that no one else in the world is expected to live up to.”
Leno’s typical response would be that nobody should shed any tears for millionaires like him or Letterman, and that he has earned accolades for the career he’s had, not the one he might have had — with more kudos, no doubt, in his future.
Even so, it’s still sort of fun to wonder, “What if?”