Perhaps it’s time to forgive Jay Leno.
That won’t be a problem for the legion of fans who never had an issue with him in the first place. Three years after being replaced on “The Tonight Show,” he continues to be one of comedy’s biggest draws, booking more than 200 gigs a year, including a stop in Minneapolis on May 13 to headline the PACER Center’s annual benefit.
But for those of us who grew up idolizing David Letterman, it’s tricky. We can’t stop picturing Leno without a black hat. The theory that he “stole” the show from his former friend has been thoroughly debunked, most recently in Jason Zinoman’s book “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night,” which effectively argues that Letterman’s real enemy was his own abrasive relationship with NBC brass and impossible demands by his agent.
Then there’s the fact that Leno temporarily returned to his late-night perch after ratings for Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” and Leno’s own prime-time series had tanked. Some saw it as merely business; others saw it as the worst case of backstabbing since Brutus turned on Caesar.
Leno has always taken the higher road, at least publicly. He’s consistently said nice things about his “enemies,” even Jimmy Kimmel, who turned eviscerating his late-night peer into a part-time hobby.
“I think he’s a genuinely funny guy,” Leno said of Kimmel during a recent phone interview. “I thought he did a great job at the Academy Awards. I always thought we’d have a great relationship because we both come from the same blue-collar background. But it was one of those situations where people saw kindness as a weakness. I kind of got played on that one.”
On the subject of Letterman, he continues to be diplomatic.
“I always thought we were the flip side of each other,” he said. “I was a stand-up lucky enough to get a TV show and Dave was a broadcaster who was fortunate enough to do stand-up.”
As always, Leno was generous with his time on the phone and seemed genuinely at ease with life on the road rather than life in a Burbank, Calif., studio.
“I do miss doing the TV show, but at some point I shouldn’t have to know all of Jay Z’s music. It’s one thing to be talking to a supermodel when you’re 40 years old, but when you’re 66, it’s kind of creepy.”
Leno may sound loose and freewheeling in conversation, but it doesn’t take an hour on Google to realize that he’s also rehearsed. Most of his answers have popped up in numerous past interviews; he’ll start anecdotes by saying that they happened just the other day, when actually they seem to have taken place months earlier.
His act can also feel dated. While his “Tonight Show” monologues were freshened every evening with the help of writers, his live act leans heavily on time-tested material. While the new generation of comics tend to start over every 18 months, Leno stays loyal to what works.
One gets the sense he’d still be riffing off his mother trying to operate the VHS recorder if he could get away with it.
“Jerry Seinfeld and I kind of agree on this,” Leno said. “You do an hour of proven material for every three new minutes. If those work, you move them up to the middle or the top. You do have evergreens. If you do a Netflix special, you’ve got to do all new stuff next time you’re on the road because they’ve heard that stuff. I don’t do those specials. I would rather get paid piecemeal and keep polishing the act.”
That’s a reasonable approach. Maybe too reasonable. Leno likes to stick to the script, both on stage and in interviews. When I asked him to name an up-and-coming comic that impresses him, he offered up Kathleen Madigan, a well-established talent whose first CD came out in 1998. When I mentioned how much fun it would be to see Leno, Letterman, Kimmel and O’Brien do a special concert together, he notes that group performances sound good in theory, but don’t really work in practice.
Uh, OK. But that sort of misses the point.
Want to get even more frustrated? Go to YouTube and check out one of Leno’s appearances on Letterman’s old NBC show “Late Night.” You’ll meet a nearly unrecognizable ball of fire who practically bounds on stage with a meatball sandwich, a copy of TV Guide and a chip on his shoulder.
He was unpredictable, brash, annoyed — and hilarious.
Those of us who have a grudge against Leno are probably more nostalgic for the old Leno than we are bitter over the current one. It’s not that he’s lost his talent; it’s that he’s lost his edge.
That may be disappointing, but it’s not a sin.