Jay Leno returned to duty as host of The Tonight Show last night, and as expected, it was terrible. The monologue was full of toothless jokes about topics as predictable and old as Tiger Woods, Dick Cheney, George Bush and Alan Greenspan. He barely even addressed any of the controversy swirling around him for the past few months, and at first I wondered the same things Vulture writer Mark Graham did:
Outside of a few potshots at NBC, he never took the time to address any of the issues that have been making headlines since early January. Nor did he do the classy thing and thank Conan O’Brien for his (admittedly brief and largely forgettable) contributions to the institution that is the Tonight Show. Nor did he make a spirited appeal to his audience, promising that he still has a passion for comedy and for the program and will work tirelessly to return the show to its past glories. Instead, he totally phoned it in this evening on every conceivable level, leaving media critics and audiences alike to wonder whether or not Leno has anything even resembling a competitive spirit left, or if the trials and tribulations of the last year have simply caused permanent and irreparable damage to his spirit and psyche.
But then I remembered that, actually, dialing in his return the way he did is probably the most competitive thing he could have done. We’re talking about a man who has managed to sustain a very successful career by catering to an audience full of people with no competitive spirit left. He’s gotten rich by appealing to people who want nothing to do with controversy, who don’t want to have their ideas of what’s funny and what’s not called into question—and he gave them exactly what they wanted last night, just as he’s always done.