Amid a night filled with the expected tributes, Bill Maher closed by issuing a full-throated defense of Jay Leno — citing his victimization by the media — as the Television Academy inducted six new Hall of Fame members in Beverly Hills on Tuesday night.
Introducing Leno, Maher compared the former “The Tonight Show” host to Israel, saying in regard to the way he’s been covered through the years, “He’s not perfect, but he’s held to a standard that no one else in the world is expected to live up to other than him.”
The host of HBO’s “Real Time” (who referenced a 35-year friendship with Leno, and appeared in a taped piece on his final “Tonight Show”) dismissed the notion that Leno had “stolen” Conan O’Brien’s dream by returning to again assume NBC’s latenight mantle and chided the media for writing the story in that fashion at the time. He also sounded mystified by much of the bad publicity Leno has received, suggesting Leno was better suited to host “Tonight” during his time than Johnny Carson would have been, and that for all the talk of “feuds” involving Leno and other comics, “You have to work really, really hard to have a feud with Jay Leno.”
For his part, Leno reiterated the theme he articulated in his exit interviews, saying it was the right time for him to leave, before proceeding to comedically riff on the notion of being a 63-year-old man who couldn’t relate to the show’s interns.
“The key is knowing when to step down,” Leno said, adding that his replacement, Jimmy Fallon, is “doing a wonderful job” and that the two speak once or twice a week.
Others feted as part of the class of 2014 were the late sound pioneer Ray Dolby, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, writer-producer David E. Kelley and former ABC executive Brandon Stoddard.
“I got into television because I believe in providing consumers with choice,” said Murdoch, who celebrated his 83rd birthday along with the event. The News Corp. honcho stressed that he didn’t like looking backward, noting of the changes that are reshaping the TV business, “This is a revolution still in its infancy.”
Kelley was lauded for having written more than 600 episodes of television (including 400 solo credits) in an Emmy-winning career that he credited to the people he worked with, starting with the producer who first hired him as a lawyer out of Boston on “L.A. Law.”
“Steven Bochco changed my life,” Kelley said.
Stoddard, who oversaw such massively popular and acclaimed miniseries as “Roots,” “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War,” among countless other movies and series, urged the industry to take risks, as he had during his career.
“The audience is not dumb,” he said. “They are as smart as you are.”
Louis-Dreyfus — the only woman ever to win acting awards for three different comedy series, per her introduction by Amy Poehler — said she savors the gag reels on her shows above all else, citing as a showbiz mantra a bit of advice she received from a high school teacher: “Have fun at all costs.”
She also expressed sympathy for people working on struggling series, saying, “Bad TV is hard to make too.”
In a night that featured plenty of talk about this being TV’s latest golden age, Poehler drew laughs from the TV-centric crowd by citing the medium’s superiority to feature films.
“We all know that movies are dumb and TV is awesome,” she quipped.