On the morning of January 11, numerous media outlets reported that former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich had proclaimed to Esquire magazine that he’s “blacker than Barack Obama” in its February issue, which arrives on newsstands tomorrow. And later that morning the ex-governor, who was impeached last year on corruption charges and is now awaiting trial, apologized for his bold statement, using the word “stupid” 17 times to explain himself to reporters.

Here’s the full quote from the Esquire interview: “It’s such a cynical business, and most of the people in the business are full of shit and phonies, but I was real, man — and am real. This guy, he was catapulted in on hope and change, what we hope the guy is. What the fuck? Everything he’s saying’s on the teleprompter. I’m blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived. I saw it all growing up.”

And I sure hope you took it all in, Blago, because once you go to prison, you won’t be seeing much of anything for a long, long time. (Note to self: find out which brand of truth-serum-laced crazy pills Esquire reporters are dissolving in their interview subjects’ water. In the January 1998 issue, Daily Show host Craig Kilborn was quoted as saying, “If I wanted [executive producer Lizz Winstead] to blow me, she would,” and one month later the magazine published an interview with O.J. Simpson in which he stated, “Let’s say I committed this crime … Even if I did this, it would have to have been because I loved her very much, right?” Outstanding, Esquire!)

But I am happy that Blago came to the conclusion he’s not black, because it allows me to name someone who’s much blacker: Jay Leno.

You heard me! Even if he is merely “light-skinned” in the eyes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the former and near-future host of The Tonight Show is waaaaaay blacker than Rod Blagojevich. Why? Because only people who live in Illinois care one way or another about Blago, but everybody seems to hate Jay.

See, whenever a black man gains some power in this world after working hard to achieve his goals, white people get nervous and try to knock him down a few pegs. You know what I’m talking about!

Martin and Malcolm.

R. Kelly and M. Jackson.

Willie Tyler and Lester.

Presidents Obama and Clinton.

And now Jay Leno.

Even black people hate Leno. His original bandleader on Tonight, jazz musician Branford Marsalis, described his on-air relationship with the talk-show host to Jet magazine in 1994: “It will never be what Dave [Letterman] and Paul [Shaffer] have because I’m not the kind of person that’s gonna kiss Jay’s ass and say everything he does is right.”

And in the spring of ’92, right before Leno took over for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, fellow talk-show host Arsenio Hall used another four-letter verb starting with the letter K when speaking to Entertainment Weekly about Leno: “No one put the late-night silver spoon in my mouth. I earned every drop of mine. And I’m gonna treat him like we treated the kid on the high school basketball team who was the coach’s son. He was there because he was anointed too. We tried to kick his ass, and that’s what I’m going to do — kick Jay’s ass.” (Having failed to kick said ass, Hall eventually made guest appearances on both The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and The Jay Leno Show.)

Leno’s been compared lately to Brett Favre, the longtime Green Bay Packers quarterback who retired in 2007 after 16 seasons with the team, then came out of retirement to play for the New York Jets in ’08. Favre then retired again, only to sign with the Minnesota Vikings for the 2009 season, where he’s done pretty darn well for himself in his old age, thank you very much.

A better comparison, I think, is Paul McCartney, except for the fact that no matter what people think of McCartney’s solo work, they still remember what he did with the Beatles and continue to praise it to the high heavens. In Leno’s case, no one seems to remember that 25 years ago he was considered the top stand-up comic in the country.

In her biography American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story, author Cynthia True writes, “Bill had been in Austin barely six months when he got a call from [Houston’s Comedy Workshop] to open for Jay Leno there the second week in February 1983. Thirty-three-year-old Leno, who packed clubs three hundred days of the year and was becoming well known through his appearances on the new show Late Night with David Letterman, was considered the sharpest, best road act in the country. Leno was a hero to Bill….

“Leno brought his wife, Mavis, and [with Laurie Mango, Bill’s girlfriend, they] hung out all week, having dinner at Steak & Ale before the shows. Bill and Laurie couldn’t get over how warm and genuine Jay and Mavis were. ‘Bill was thrilled to be with him,’ Laurie said, ‘and kept telling me what a great guy he was. There were very few people Bill would say were funny: Seinfeld, Jay, and maybe one or two more, but that was it.’ Leno seemed to have an affection for Bill, and he had lots of advice for him: if you want to get on television, he suggested, you should clean up your material and make it more palatable for general audiences. Leno said Bill didn’t need to swear or get graphic about sex; he was powerful enough without that stuff.”

Cut to one year later. “Jay Leno had promised to help Bill get on Letterman and he was true to his word. He’d told Late Night segment producer Robert Morton what a great act Hicks had, and on a Friday morning in early February 1984, Bill got the call.”

Then cut to nine years later. “Bill found it entirely revolting that a man who made ‘three million a year,’ a man who was once the most brilliant, caustic voice in the country, was using his name to sell snacks to ‘bovine America.’ In fact, Leno’s Tonight Show, like The PTL Club, was something of an obsession with Bill. He loved to watch while hanging out on the phone with one of the guys, [comedian Andy] Huggins, [comedian Jimmy] Pineapple, or [Chicago comedy-club owner Len] Austrevich, and just rail on how cloying Leno had become. ‘Both Bill and I absolutely adored Leno as a comic,’ Huggins explained. ‘And what he became on The Tonight Show made him absolutely fascinating to us. We would watch Arsenio Hall and that show was dreadful, but it was exactly what we expected. But Jay was so good at one time. It’s not like he moved just three degrees closer to becoming a hack because “I’m on TV now.” He did a complete one-eighty. Stunning.'”

In his stand-up act, Hicks pondered whether Leno would kill himself on the air while interviewing former Dallas star Patrick Duffy or Joey Lawrence of NBC’s Blossom. He called his former mentor a “company man to the bitter fucking end” and accused him of being a “whore” for advertising Doritos, declaring that he was “off the artistic roll call.”

According to American Scream, Leno phoned Bill one day to ask why he was being trashed onstage. “They had a long talk and Bill told Jay how much he hated The Tonight Show (as if the man were not aware) and how disappointed he was because Leno was one of his comedy heroes. Why was the show so stodgy? Why was he showcasing guys like Carrot Top? Why was he being so … unfunny?”

Of course, Hicks had it easy — he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32, just as his career was finally building some serious momentum in the U.S.

Dying is easy, comedy is hard. Or so they say. But if you die tragically young like Hicks — or Andy Kaufman, for that matter, who succumbed to a rare form of lung cancer at age 35 a decade earlier — you at least don’t have to make compromises later in life in order to maintain your career, like O’Brien cutting back on Late Night‘s absurdist “Masturbating Bear” gag for the 11:30 hour or Leno loading his monologues with as many inoffensive one-liners as possible — he still “sells” every single one of them, though, which must endear him to his writers — in order to lure the greatest number of viewers. (Leno’s “Headlines” segment has always been hilarious, however. If you don’t like it, then the typos have won.)

One of David Letterman’s greatest assets on Late Night in the ’80s was Chris Elliott, a wickedly talented actor and writer whose various appearances on the show as “characters” like the Guy Under the Seats and the Fugitive Guy (and even once as Leno) added greatly to the conceptual fun. But by 2000 he was starring as “the wacky neighbor” on the NBC sitcom Cursed, a.k.a. The Weber Show. It was hard not to think that a similar fate would have been waiting for Kaufman had he lived (at least Taxi had some critical cachet because of James L. Brooks’s involvement), and no fan of Hicks would have wanted to see him outgrow his “angry young man” persona just so he could end up as occasional comic relief on a CSI spin-off in his 40s.

I’ve never seen Leno perform live — throughout his 17 years hosting The Tonight Show he was still performing an average of 160 stand-up gigs a year, and he swears he lives off his stand-up money, having never touched his TV earnings, apparently afraid that too much money will make him lazy — but when I was growing up in the ’80s and early ’90s I loved whatever scraps of Late Night my parents would allow me to watch, and Leno’s guest appearances were part of what made the show great. His jokes about Penthouse Forum letters and Playboy centerfolds’ turn-ons still make me laugh (and now I actually know what he was talking about).

“Doing [Letterman’s] show in the ’80s, going on and zinging back and forth, that was the most fun for me of anything I ever did in show business,” Leno told Bill Carter in the New York Times in 2008.

Partly because of those appearances on Late Night, Leno caught the eye of The Tonight Show‘s producers and started filling in for Johnny Carson in 1987, eventually taking over the show five years later when Carson retired after three decades as host. According to Bill Carter’s 1996 book The Late Shift and the HBO movie based on it, CBS began courting Leno in ’90 for a new 11:30 show, but he wanted Tonight. The only problem was, so did Letterman. (But can you imagine him doing a show from Burbank? When he hosted the Oscars in ’95, it seemed like a good indicator of where The Tonight Show might have gone under his watch.)

Helen Kushnick, Leno’s manager at the time, negotiated a top-secret contract with NBC for her client’s services before Carson had even retired. By the end of ’92, however, a proposed deal by CBS to pay Letterman $16 million a year for an 11:30 show of his own had endangered Leno’s position, as Carter reported in the New York Times in December of that year:

“Mr. Leno said he would ‘obviously leave NBC immediately’ if the network decided to give the ‘Tonight’ show to Mr. Letterman. He said he would absolutely refuse to do a show in the 12:30 A.M. spot now occupied by Mr. Letterman’s show, ‘Late Night,’ and would indeed consider creating the same problem for NBC that Mr. Letterman’s proposed deal with CBS caused.”

Seventeen years later it’s Letterman’s Late Night successor and Leno’s Tonight Show successor, Conan O’Brien, who’s refusing to move further down the schedule, in this case to accommodate Leno at 11:35 once again: NBC announced last week that it wanted to move The Jay Leno Show, which failed to attract large audiences five nights a week in prime time over the past four months, into late night in a retooled 30-minute version, bumping O’Brien’s Tonight into tomorrow with a 12:05 start time.

I don’t blame O’Brien for standing his ground, and the fact that he’s only been given seven months to prove himself as host of The Tonight Show is unfair, especially given how long he had to wait to get the job. Then again, Leno was also forced to go on the defensive after only seven months back in 1992.

As Carter wrote in the Times in September of ’04, after NBC reached a deal five years in advance to remove Leno as the host of Tonight and install O’Brien, “One of the main inspirations for concluding the deal this early was NBC’s conviction that it could not go through the painful and at times embarrassing process that attended the last decision to turn over the host job on ‘Tonight.'”

But back in the early ’90s NBC wasn’t stuck in fourth place, a ranking that makes the current late-night soap opera even more painful and embarrassing for them. The network was number one in late night for 14 straight years, however, mostly thanks to Leno’s popularity on Tonight, the most profitable show on NBC besides Today. Therefore they felt the need to screw it all up by doing whatever it took to keep both Leno and O’Brien on the schedule instead of allowing one of them to go to a competing network.

Now NBC executives want to correct their mistakes, but Reuters is reporting that it may cost them up to $40 million just to complete O’Brien’s severance package and put Leno back in place at Tonight.

And once Leno is in his old stomping grounds again, he’ll be hated even more by comedy nerds, especially O’Brien fans who feel that Leno gave their hero The Tonight Show only to demand it back once he felt abandoned in prime time. Leno told Rolling Stone‘s Neil Strauss last year that his attitude about having Tonight taken away from him in ’04 was “‘Guys, whatever you want to do.’ I’ve never been one of these guys that breaks up with a girl and goes, ‘But why? If I do this, will you go out with me?’ I’m more like, ‘Babe, if you don’t want to see me, I’m gone. It’s over. Thank you.'”

But Leno didn’t walk away from NBC last year, nor is he likely to walk away from a new assignment now. “The network asked him to make a compromise. He’s being a good soldier, and he’s being trashed,” Jay Leno Show producer Jack Coen told the Associated Press. Coproducer Tracie Fiss, who’s worked with Leno for the past 18 years, added, “Jay doesn’t have the power to make these decisions. The decisions are made by NBC.” And they appear more than willing to let him look like the bad guy in this whole debacle.

As Strauss wrote in the introduction to his Rolling Stone interview, “Beneath his upbeat, regular-guy demeanor there lurks a streak of disappointment, an immigrant fatalism — that sense that once you stop striving and achieving, the world will grind you up.” Leno’s lifestyle, he observed, is “a routine designed to keep him safely insulated, his attitude predicated on the fact that at any moment everything he’s worked for could disappear and never return.”

The bottom line is that, much like Paul McCartney, Jay Leno loves to work. It appears to be his only vice. But he’s good at what he does, and his Tonight Show fans love him for it, even if none of them use Twitter or Facebook to voice their opinion. Leno also knows how to survive in a cutthroat business, though he’s only a shark in the sense that he apparently thinks he’ll die if he stops moving.

His attempt in his recent Jay Leno Show monologues to portray himself as a victim at the hands of NBC programmers was strained — he’s only an underdog in terms of what critics and knee-jerk tastemakers think of him — but how would you feel if your boss came to you one day and said, “Jay, thanks for all your hard work these past 12 years. We really appreciate you keeping Tonight at number one in the ratings for nine years now, and never missing a show or demanding huge raises.

“But here’s the thing — Conan’s been hosting Late Night for 11 years now, just like your old buddy Dave hosted Late Night for 11 years, and … well … he wants The Tonight Show. You know how it is — fulfillment of a lifelong dream, ‘when I was a boy,’ et cetera, et cetera. Anyway, Conan’s managers and agents and lawyers say he’ll leave for another network if he doesn’t get it. And we can’t have another Letterman situation on our hands. We just can’t. It’s bad for business.

“Besides, even though you’re at number one, your audience is older than Conan’s, and we’re pretty much at the mercy of these advertisers who kiss the ground 18- to 49-year-olds walk on.” (Ironically, O’Brien’s ratings in the key 18-to-34 demographic at Tonight have been lower than Leno’s were when he was host.)

No matter how much of a grumpy old man he becomes, I’ll take Letterman’s timing and delivery any day over Leno’s or O’Brien’s. But as New York magazine’s Sam Anderson wrote in January of ’08 after Letterman and Leno brought their shows back during the writers’ strike, the latter’s “not trying to be the funniest guy in the world; he’s trying to be the most dependably serviceable at monologuing — an equally difficult task that carries almost none of the turkey-cocking street cred of revolutionary art comedy. Like many Americans, Jay Leno works as hard as he can under impossible conditions (he even knows he’s losing his job next year), and he refuses to beat himself up for it — a position that is, in the end, riskier, more vulnerable, and easier to identify with than that of his nearest rival. And, if you can manage to think about it without irony, very nearly heroic.”

That’s not how anyone would describe the ignorant white guy who used to be governor of Illinois, except maybe the man himself, but Rod Blagojevich will soon be joining Leno on NBC: come March 14, he’ll be part of the new season of Celebrity Apprentice. I’m sure he’ll have lots to talk about with fellow black contestants Darryl Strawberry, Holly Robinson Peete, Michael Johnson, and Sinbad.

By the way, this marks my final Sugar Water essay for Popdose. As Jeff Giles keeps reminding me, it was my decision, and I stand behind him standing behind it 110 percent. Join me next week, won’t you, for my new series: Hey, Who Else Hates [Artist or Title]? Seriously, Right? I Mean, C’mon!!!!

It’ll be super.

Billy Paul, “Am I Black Enough for You?” (from 1972’s 360 Degrees of Billy Paul)
Todd Rundgren, “Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me” [Edit] (from 1972’s Something/Anything?)
Radiohead, “Talk Show Host” (from the 2009 collector’s edition of The Bends)
Paul McCartney, “Tug of War” (from 1982’s Tug of War)

About the Author

Robert Cass

Robert Cass lives in Chicago. For Popdose he's written under the Sugar Water, Bootleg City, and Box Office Flashback banners and collaborated on the series 'Face Time with Jeff Giles and Mike Heyliger.

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