Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stealing Third

Once upon a time there was a young man named Jay.

Jay wanted more than anything to get up in front of his little village and tell them jokes. He was not alone in this. Many others before him and since have also wanted to do this. It wasn't that Jay was better than anyone else at this, or that he was worse than anyone. He was about average in his talents actually, but when his big opportunity came and he got up on that stage and he told his little jokes, the owner of that little stage and the leaders of the village told him don't call us we'll call you.

Now when this happened to the many people before Jay and the many people since Jay, the proper response was to leave the stage and either hone their craft and come back better prepared, or give up the dream and look into the fine career of telephone sanitization. However, Jay didn't do either of these things. After he was told he wasn't wanted, Jay lingered in the lobby, and loitered there to do something that wasn't as common at the time but also wasn't original or creative: it's called networking.

Jay would hang out at the lobby and maybe just outside the building where the stage was kept, and he'd talk to people and trade gossip, and he'd remember people's names and let them know he was there. He'd talk to people who came to the stage to tell their jokes and he'd offer empty platitudes and seemingly sincere support. He'd talk to people who just left the stage despondent and with crushed dreams and he'd pat them on the shoulder and he'd share a drink or two. He'd also talk with the people who worked around the stage and get to know them and he wanted everyone to know that if there was anything they needed, anything at all, he was there. Sounds noble doesn't it? Perhaps it is.

And every now and then, usually after doing something for somebody who appeared to have influence with regards to that stage, he'd ask if there was a chance for him to get up on that stage again, and they'd say gee I don't know lemme go ask someone, and Jay would get that someone's name and add that person to the list of people with whom he'd try to network. Eventually he got on that stage again, and even though he wasn't really any better at telling jokes than he was before, by this point most of the people controlling the stage considered him a friend and therefore had no reason to pull him off of it. I may be way off base, but I believe this is what David Letterman means when he says..
"Every day I wake up and I say I'm gonna keep my mouth shut about this NBC Tonight Show thing because honestly folks I don't have a dog in this fight, but here's the deal. I've known Jay Leno for, I don't know, thirty-five years? A long, long time, and we used to buddy around in the old days, and what we're seeing now is kind of Vintage Jay, and it's enjoyable for me to see this. It's like "hey! There he is! There's the guy I know!" And I thought well I better keep my mouth shut because Lord knows I've got my own problems. ..but I just can't help myself!"
So what is Vintage Jay? It's pretending to be everybody's friend when what you're really doing is keeping an eye on that little stage, and figuring out who controls the strings that get a person to stay up on that stage. It's not about being a better comedian. It's not about making people laugh. It's about the game. It's about king of the hill. How many hands do I have to shake and how many babies do I need to kiss so I can get enough people to let me stay on that stage and pretend to be funny?

Did Johnny Carson ever go around shaking hands in the audience just before or after telling jokes? No. Why? Cuz he didn't have to. He had nothing to prove. He was Johnny effing Carson. All he had to do was a golf swing, and he didn't even need to do that. He did that cuz in his mind, that's where he really was. Where's Jay's mind at? "how do I get to stay on that stage tomorrow???" What deal does he have to make with the devils of network television? All he wants is that piece of stage. It doesn't matter what he has to do to get it and it doesn't matter what he has to do to keep it, or who gets screwed in the process. I'm not necessarily knocking that. Actually, in some ways, this is very American, and Jay will be the first to tell you that he's no Johnny Carson, but the difference here between Jay and Johnny is that Johnny could if he wanted do all the shady & selfish things Jay does and more, and you'd thank him for it, cuz he was Johnny effing Carson. Johnny didn't get the job on the Tonight Show by undercutting his competition. Jack Paar quit and NBC needed a replacement. Johnny was simply the best man for the job back in 1962 and he lived that for thirty years. He didn't have to prove anything or hustle. He just was.

What sets Jay apart from the others who have sat behind that desk is simply this. Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, David Letterman, Bill Cosby, John Rivers, Bob Newhart, and Conan O'Brien know metaphorically how to Steal For Third. A good comedian can stand on that stage and make you think s/he's playing it safe, but peripherally he or she is gonna trick you into thinking as you laugh. A good comedian is daring, unpredictable, unsafe, and with practically every joke takes the risk of getting pulled off that stage cuz s/he went too far. That's the job. That's how it's done. Can't do that? You don't belong on the big stages. You don't belong behind that desk. You belong in the seedy little dives across the country trying to figure out how to do that and a thousand other things that eventually make okay comedians fantastic.

Jay never figured out how to steal for third. However, he does know how to ask for seconds.

That's what he did back in the old days of Vintage Jay when he'd loiter about in the lobby or help out in the back of the comedy club and beg for another five minutes behind the microphone. He didn't care about being the best. He just cared about staying there. That's what he did then. That's what he's doing now. Why did Jay get the job as permanent guest host in the first place, back when Johnny was still alive? It wasn't cuz he was the best. It's because he's the cheapest. He undercut his competitors. Why'd they give Jay the job instead of David Letterman when Carson's seat became available? Cuz Jay was cheaper than Dave. Cuz Jay was safer than Dave. Cuz Jay will do what he's told, while Dave will tell a NBC executive where to stick it, and he'll even offer diagrams on how far up an NBC executive should make it go.

Dave didn't put up with NBCs shit. He went to CBS. Now he owns his own shit. Dave's made fun of CBS now and then cuz it's funny, or cuz he wanted them to know he wanted something, and wasn't afraid to take it out of someone's hide. CBS has learned to let Dave do his thing and everything will be fine. NBC likes to meddle, and Jay let's them do that.

This has backfired on Jay. The reason they're in the situation they are in now is because whenever NBC comes to Jay and tells him they want to manipulate him, he shrugs and goes along with it. We're gonna replace you in five years with Conan. Oh alright. I get to stay on the stage for five years tho right? We're gonna move you to prime time cuz we don't wanna lose you. Oh alright so long as I'm still doing what I've been doing. We're gonna put you back and rip the rug out from under Conan cuz the affiliates want to kill us for being stupid. Oh alright. Conan's not me so I don't care what happens to him but I get to still be on that stage, right? It's all about being on that effing stage for Jay, and it always has been.

What Jay shoulda done five years ago, when NBC said we are gonna tell Conan he can have Jay's seat in five years, Jay shoulda said look I'll just go to FOX right now. Or HBO. or anywhere. Jay shoulda realized that when they said that they were not firing him in five years, they were instead making him aware he was disposable. Johnny Carson would never have tolerated that. Jack Paar didn't tolerate a network that refused to support him and stand behind him. Jack Paar could not only steal third, but he could pick up home plate and walk off with it. NBC censored him, because he would not play it safe, and Paar quit because of their ignorance and fear.

Jay Leno has been given the position as host of the Tonight Show because he is the network's lap dog. He kisses their ass. He plays it safe. He may be an NBC Executive's wet dream, but he is no Carson. He's no Paar. He's no Allen. He's no Letterman. He's no O'Brien.

I don't watch The Tonight Show when Jay is behind that desk, because so far as I'm concerned the tradition of The Tonight Show died w/Johnny Carson. It looked like it might get resurrected because Conan O'Brien does deserve that chair. He's fiendishly clever, outrageous, controversial, daring, sly, and he knows how to make his audience laugh and think at the same time. When NBC lets Jay Leno sit behind that desk after their Olympics, it will for all intents and purposes be the end of the Tonight Show. They may still call it The Tonight Show, but so long as a cowardly and unfunny comic sits behind that desk, there IS no Tonight Show. They can play with the numbers and ratings all they want to prove themselves right, but America needs a comedian behind that desk that knows how to Steal Third. Jay ain't it.

I'm boycotting NBC. My shunning them alone will not be enough, I know. I'm not doing this because I think just me not watching will change their minds or bring down the empire. I just can't personally support a network that behaves in this manner. I left FOX back in 2003 after what they did to Joss Whedon, and only recently came back when they let him and Eliza Dushku do Dollhouse. They gave Whedon a fair shake this time so I got nothing against FOX currently, but NBC did Conan wrong, and by keeping Jay Leno on their air they're doing a disservice to anyone who loves good comedy.

So long as Jay Leno remains behind that desk, I'm boycotting NBC. I hope you do the same.

It's nothing personal Jay, but we mean business. No hard feelings? Good. Now, go stick your head in a toilet and flush.

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