Jay Leno never bothered to exceed Carson or to bring anything new to the table. Instead, he found the sweet spot of mass media mediocrity that will get you showered in dollars if you can find it. No one in the comedy community or anywhere else, for that matter, seems upset by his ride into the sunset, in sharp contrast to the outpourings of emotion when Carson retired. Even people who like Leno have nothing invested in him. His ratings quash those of his rivals, but when Jon Stewart or David Letterman retire, I can guarantee you that the encomiums will flow from the comedy community and their fans.
On my old blog, this is what my guest-columnist Cranky Bear had to say about Leno when he decided to go back to the Tonight Show and push Conan O'Brien out:
"His borderline sexism, constant harping on cheap and east targets (Slick Willie and OJ), unnervingly stale "Headlines" bit and the kinds of jokes I normally hear middle-aged golfers tell over their Tom Collins have been repeated to the point of nausea. Worse still, he has used his televisual power for evil, giving Arnold Schwarzenegger an opportunity to make his case for the governorship in what amounted to a right-wing coup against Gray Davis stoked by Enron's intentional ass-fucking of the state's energy markets.
Leno's return to the Tonight Show represents the ultimate triumph of mediocrity. The same people who like Mitch Albom books and eat at Appleby's like Leno. The same people who "wear" Snuggies and put ribbon magnets on their cars like Leno. The same people who listen to Three Doors Down and wear crocs like Jay Leno. He is the ultimate avatar of the ubiquitous tastelessness and braindead consumerama that passes for culture in our corporatized shitscape of a society."
While Cranky's words may be impolitic, as usual, I agree with the gist of them. I don't know anyone who LOVES Leno, but he gets millions of people to watch him every night. Like the Doritos he used to hawk, Leno is selling a cheap, easily edible product lacking in substance, originality, or sustenance. I can't blame him too much, since he's only giving a large chunk of the people what they want, or at least what they'll settle for when they don't want to look too hard for something else. It's perhaps the same reason why Two and a Half Men has been on the air so long, that KFC's "famous bowl" has been a success despite its manifest grossness, that the sanctimoniously boring Joe Buck still gets to call the biggest games, and why voters keep pulling the lever for the same shitty incumbents, election after election. Make no mistake, mediocrity holds sway in America. How else could George W. Bush been elected to two terms, and the likes of Jay Leno dominate late night?