Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno — who successfully pulled off the impossible, following up the inimitable Johnny Carson — says he doesn’t miss his late-night hosting gig because now “everyone has to know your politics.” The current hosts, he suggested, have failed to learn what he learned from Carson: not to let yourself appear to be “one-sided.”
In an exchange during his appearance on NBC’s “TODAY” Tuesday highlighted by The Hill, the hosts of the show began by saying, “So it’s been five years since you left ‘The Tonight Show,’ and you see the place we are right now in this country. Do you miss being on the show? Or is it such a different time that it would be hard to do?”
“No, it’s different — I don’t miss it,” said Leno. “You know, everything now is if people don’t like your politics — everyone has to know your politics.”
“I kind of used Johnny [Carson]’s model,” he explained. “People couldn’t figure out: ‘Well, you and your Republican friends…’ or ‘Well, Mr. Leno, you and your Democratic buddies…’ And I would get hate mail from both sides equally. And I went, ‘Well that’s fabulous! That’s exactly what I want.'”
The hosts reacted enthusiastically to Leno’s response.
“But when people see you as one-sided, it just makes it tough,” Leno said. “And plus, I did it when, you know, Clinton was horny and Bush was dumb, and it was just a little easier,” he added, a line that got more laughs from the NBC team.
“You know, now it’s all very serious, everything so, so na—” he said, stopping himself mid-line. “I’d just like to see a bit of civility come back to it, you know?”
“People say, ‘Oh, it must be easy to do jokes with Trump,'” he continued. “No, it’s actually harder because the punch line of the joke used to be ‘That’s like the president with a porn star.’ Well, now the president is with a porn star. Where do you go with that?! … How do you get more outrageous than that?! Exactly.”
Asked if he thinks the pendulum will swing back the other way, Leno said, “Of course, I think it will swing back the other way.”
Video below (comments begin around the 3:30 mark):
Leno began guest hosting “The Tonight Show” starting in 1987 and took over as the full-time host in 1992, when Carson retired. Leno dominated the late-night scene all the way until his retirement in 2014, when his replacement Jimmy Fallon took the reigns. Fallon at first continued the show’s top-rated streak until more politically charged shows began to overtake him. Fallon drew the outrage of progressive viewers for interviewing Donald Trump in 2016.
“It just got bigger and out of control,” Fallon told The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter in June 2018 regarding the backlash against him for inviting on Trump. “[P]eople just jump on the train, and some people don’t even want to hear anything else. They’re like, ‘No, you did that!’ You go, ‘Well, just calm down and just look at the whole thing and actually see my body of work.'” It was “definitely a down time” amid all the backlash, Fallon said, and morale really dropped on the show. “I’m sorry,” he said for having Trump on the show. “I don’t want to make anyone angry — I never do and I never will. It’s all in the fun of the show. I made a mistake. I’m sorry if I made anyone mad. And, looking back, I would do it differently.”
Trump responded by telling Fallon to “be a man.”
While Leno’s no longer hosting a show, he is a regular on Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing,” which is now over at Fox after ABC inexplicably dropped it, a decision that drew accusations of political bias.