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Does Mr. Middle-of-the-Road Lean Left? 

Jay Leno talks about the tragedy and comedy of politics

Thursday, Sep 16 2004
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AP/WideWorld Photos

Jay Leno says, “I’m not conservative. I’ve never voted that way in my life.” He “really worries” what a Dubya victory in November will do to the makeup of the Supreme Court. He believes “the wool was pulled over our eyes” with the Iraq war. He thinks the White House began using terrorism “as a crutch” after 9/11. He feels that during the campaign Kerry should “make Bush look as stupid as possible.” He believes “the media is in the pocket of the government, and they don’t do their job” so “you have people like Michael Moore who do it for them.” He has on his joke-writing staff a number of former professional speechwriters for Democratic candidates. “No Republicans.” When it comes to Bush, he doesn’t think his politics are much different from Letterman’s. “Does he show his dislike maybe a little more than I do? Probably.” Leno used to read Mother Jones magazine.

Could it be? Is it possible? Is Leno, “the right comic,” really a closet lefty?

Sure seems that way, judging from his remarkably candid interview with L.A. Weekly about his views on politics in general and the 2004 presidential race in particular. (Or is it just a new Leno strategy to win younger viewers, same as his new I'm-just-hangin'-out shirt sleeves which debuted on the show this week?)

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Here’s how it came about. The phone rang a few months ago, and I didn’t check Caller ID. “Hello, this is Jay Leno.”

“Oh, very funny,” I said, presuming this was yet another lame attempt by a friend to fool me with his god-awful celebrity impressions.

“No, it’s really me,” the voice insisted. “Jay Leno.”

Well, the voice did have that cartoonish high-pitched whine, like a cat being strangled, which is instantly recognizable as Leno’s.

“Oh God,” I blurted out, “you’re calling to yell at me.”

Leno had every reason to be pissed. In less than nine months, I had written two L.A. Weekly columns branding The Tonight Show host a Republican pawn. One expressed outrage at how Leno had partisanly promoted Ah-nuld’s candidacy and emceed Schwarzenegger’s victory party [“The Right Comic”] and gone soft on W. in his monologues. The second praised David Letterman for having “the brass balls to go where the cowardly White House news corps and corporate suck-up Leno fear to tread: presenting Dubya in all his dumb-ass glory.” [“Dave the Brave”].

Ten days after that Letterman vs. Leno column was published on April 30, Jay was on the phone to me. He didn’t scream. He didn’t lose his temper. But we did have a long and enthusiastic phone discussion about politics, all of which he put off the record. I dared him to give me an on-the-record interview. To my shock, he agreed. To my even greater amazement, on the very next Tonight Show, Leno had taken my bitching at him to heart. I had made the point that, since Clinton’s sex scandal was rife with humor, it was just as funny to examine what the heck you have to do in the Bush administration to get fired (since, by that time, no heads had rolled over the missing WMDs, or the war gone wrong in Iraq, or even the prison torture). Leno, in the middle of his monologue, was saying to America the exact words I had used to him: “What the heck do you have to do in the Bush administration to get fired?” Needless to say, I fell out of bed.

Leno made good on his promise. We sat down together in The Tonight Show’s fabled Green Room where, in the beginning, Jay looked like he was getting a root canal. But the deeper we got into politics, the more he let his guard down, and dished.

 

NIKKI FINKE: You felt I was unfair to you.

JAY LENO: I didn’t say that. I just thought maybe you didn’t have the facts. My first instinct is always to understand. If people say something about me, I go, “Okay, why do they say it?” When you’re in this business, if something goes wrong, it’s always your fault. It’s always my fault because my name is on the show. Put it this way: You never learn anything from a compliment. You learn things from criticism. And when I read yours, I wasn’t mad, like, “Oh, fuck her. I’ll call her up.” I was curious.

 

You know what I wrote. It was totally inappropriate for you to push Schwarzenneger’s candidacy and then emcee his victory party. It hurt your objectivity.

But I used to write jokes for Bill and Hillary Clinton. In fact, in Hillary’s book, she thanks me for writing jokes. And people went, “You’ve lost your objectivity.”

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