Last week, Jay Leno appeared as the host of “The Tonight Show” for the final time. There was little fanfare. Some of this has to do with the fact that there’s pop culture everywhere all of the time, so how am I supposed to make time for the ending of a show I haven’t seen in years when I could just as easily watch the nude scene from “True Detective” over and over and over? Most of it, however, has to do with the general disdain people seem to have for the entertainer. In the ’90s, he was Letterman’s smiling nemesis, the safe pick for Mom and Dad who didn’t get Dave’s non-sequiturs and near disdain for his audience. In the aughts, he became an honest-to-God villain while we all bought Team Coco shirts. It took me about a year and a viewing of “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” to realize the redhead was the crazy one (duh). He was desperate for approval and loved victimizing himself while Leno quietly did his job. And so, it became commonplace to believe that Leno’s middle-of-the-road, offend-no-one sensibilities were somehow the epitome of offensive. He retired last Thursday the most successful, yet least liked entertainer in his time slot. But hold up. Is that possible? Can you own the ratings like Leno did and still be universally disliked? The answer to that is, of course, no.
But there is a loud minority: the omnipresent “hip” that seems to determine these things. Leno is bad. Philip Seymour Hoffman was good (no shit). Woody Allen was good, then bad, and is now good again. Lena Dunham is smart? Macklemore is a joke? I don’t know, I actually can’t keep up. I was reading Gothamist last week–a popular, “hip” blog–and they described the Bruno Mars halftime show as “we’ve seen worse.” I just about spit out my dinnertime bowl of Count Chocula. “Seen worse?” The roof to my apartment nearly blew off to that masterpiece of a halftime show. And what a way to say it, too: “I’ve seen worse.” How condescending is that? If they could have written in a yawn they would have. But I get it. We’re all in a rush to not care, or even better, snidely criticize. Our ability to take down something universally-loved reveals our superior intelligence by contrast. It’s easy to make our little mountain look big if we can blast a huge chasm right next to it.
When I was 10, I enthusiastically said something to Pat, the older kid who I carpooled with, about how much I liked Hootie and the Blowfish. I expected him to simply nod his head and start talking about how beautiful “Let Her Cry” is. I mean, who didn’t like Hootie in 1994? Instead, and I’ll never forget this: he called Hootie and the Blowfish “weak” and walked away. I was the putz who liked a “weak” band, and he was the cool rocker who liked all those other bands that were much less “weak.” It seriously fucked with me. I had no idea there was a world of humans who didn’t care about what was on the radio, that there was culture and then there was subculture. I think I spent the next 15 years of my life determined to not be that kid ever again. I argued about bands and comedians and movies–anything that was popular, I found a way to dislike it. But now? It’s so miserable. Hating something is a young man’s game, a way of defining himself in a world that increasingly doesn’t care: “I have no accomplishments, but I know what I hate.” When that aesthetic drips into the latter years of anyone’s life, I can’t help but feel that person is in a state of arrested development; a person who defines himself by something he hates is the most cowardly, out-of-touch, and boring way of defining himself. He stands on the sidelines and criticizes. Congratulations, but everyone else is out there taking a chance and giving a shit. (For the record, I’d like to state that this applies to working life, too, and not just pop culture opinions).
As a comedian, I’ll occasionally get asked if I have a favorite comic. I default to Kevin James, and then I’ll sit as the person snorts and waits for me to say, “just kidding, it’s actually Pryor!” while we high-five. But that never happens. My favorite standup comedian is the guy who played “Paul Blart, Mall Cop” (Google “Sweat The Small Stuff” and watch the best). I have my reasons. Cut me a break, I like what I like. But most don’t dig that answer. Kevin James isn’t an artist. He doesn’t tell jokes about his manic-depression, or about rape, or about Odd Future songs. He just got up in front of a room and made people laugh, workmanlike, night after night, physically draining himself to do so. Kevin James cares. It’s completely earnest, completely un-hip, and I love it.
I actually didn’t like Leno’s show–it wasn’t for me. That doesn’t matter. He was successful for a very long time in defiance of a world that didn’t want him to be, and for that he deserves respect. While writing this, I stumbled across a piece on Grantland about his retirement, in which the author argues that Jay Leno’s only “salvation has been the support of a ‘silent majority’ resentful of the cultural changes that Leno provided a bulwark against.” The problem with this statement is the idea that this silent majority was “resentful.” They weren’t. They just didn’t give a shit about different opinions. They liked what they liked.
Oh, I’m sorry, you hear that, Pat? Nobody cares what you think. “Cracked Rear View” isn’t weak. It’s a masterpiece.