Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Leno Monologue

Those who thought the writers’ strike would bring down Leno misunderstood the power of his limitations:

One night, Bill Maher called Leno “virtually the only person I know … who could write an entire monologue by himself”—which sounded ridiculously overblown at the time, but on further reflection might actually be true.

By all accounts, Leno works on monologues obsessively—seven days a week, in the middle of the night, in comedy clubs, and on his days off. More than any other comic, he has devoted his life to that opening blitz of rapid-fire topical groaners. It’s his signature achievement. The Leno monologue is always impressively long and covers lots of ground. On a recent night, before he sat down at his desk, he told jokes about 24 different subjects, from botany to Britney to the production of Japanese electricity. Letterman covered only five.

Pundits who thought the strike would cripple Leno misunderstood something fundamental about his art: His act is already essentially crippled. Real stand-up comedy is famously time-intensive; it converts months of solid work into minutes of material, and its tiniest successes depend on superhumanly precise calibrations of tone, pace, and gesture—a discipline antithetical to the relentless, workaday schedule of a talk show. A monologue is, by definition, wounded comedy. We should assess late-night hosts, then, not by their rare bursts of excellence but by how they cope with mediocrity. Leno and Letterman both, at this point, deal mainly in terrible jokes. The question for viewers is what attitude—what existential garnish—do you want on top of them?