Having spent the past six years turning the former jewel of late-night television into an un-watchable cesspool of poo-poo and pee-pee jokes for drunken frat boys, Jay Leno made it official a couple of weeks ago: "The Tonight Show" is dead.
The occasion was a WCW pay-per-view TV special originating from a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D.; the main event was a wrestling "match" featuring Hollywood (formerly Hulk) Hogan and Eric Bischoff against Diamond Dallas Page and, yes, Jay Leno.That's right. The host of "The Tonight Show" - the person privileged to carry the torch once borne by Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson - is now a professional wrestler.
Leno did not play the appearance for laughs. That is, he did not act like a network TV talk-show host/comic desperate to survive in the bizarre and dangerous context of a wrestling ring. Indeed, to the extent that Leno still has a consistent show-business persona - and that's an arguable point - any such identity had been erased.
Attired modestly in a short-sleeved blue "Tonight Show" T-shirt and relatively tight sweat pants, Leno strutted and posed with his partner and with "Tonight" bandleader Kevin Eubanks (who participated in the action from ringside), taunted their opponents and egged on the crowd. During the choreographed match, Leno engaged in some face-slapping and arm-twisting, took some blows to the head and body and scared Bischoff into fleeing the ring.
Whatever you think about pro wrestling - I accept it as staged, cartoon combat between human actors - Leno's immersion in it was pathetic, sad and further evidence of the one-time stellar comic's virtually total lack of judgment.
Leno and his show, which dominates late-night ratings and profits, stood to gain nothing from this gambit. Attract a new group of viewers? Surely Leno's infantile and unsubtle show already is the show of choice for wrestling fanatics - mostly young males - who are in the market for late-night talk. What, they're watching "Nightline"?
Those who aren't talk-show viewers now, meanwhile, might be amused by the smutty stuff that Leno passes off as comedy bits, but the show's deathly pace would soon drive them away screaming into the night.
In Leno's defense, I suppose, is that the wrestling stunt, while clearly not funny in any way, carried few risks. The creative content of the "Tonight Show," after all, could hardly be held in lower esteem.
Professional comedians and discriminating viewers simply are not impressed by the chaotic circuses of Leno's "Tonight Show" road trips to Las Vegas and Chicago; by the slimy and, most important, unfunny material that fills the show's comedy bits (a bumper sticker touting Clinton for President in 2000: "If you're voting for Clinton, RAISE YOUR LEGS!"); by disgusting guest interviews like a recent ecxchange with Jenny McCarthy, during which she discussed vomiting and spit in a plate of animal guts.
A terrific young standup, Mitch Fatel, inadvertently summed up the Leno problem in a brief chat with the host on a subequent show. Fatel said part of his inspiration to become a comic came from seeing Leno's standup act years ago at the Bottom Line in New York.
"You were so funny," Fatel said to Leno, admiringly, "and now you're famous."
Out of respect for Carson, Paar, Allen and the spinning-in-his-grave Kovacs, NBC ought to do the decent thing and retire the "Tonight Show" title, which has been stripped of any relevance or resonance, and rename this amateur hour "The Jay Leno Show."
In Utah, "The Tonight Show" is seen weeknights at 10:35 p.m. on KSL-Ch. 5.