On the one-year anniversary of David Letterman's celebrated relocation to CBS en route to late-night glory, here's a toast to Jay Leno.
Today is the one-week anniversary of his tribute to his dad.
Following his usual stand-up monologue ("'Hey, folks, story of the week . . .") on last Monday's "Tonight Show," Leno went to his desk and spent the next eight minutes of his NBC hour tenderly eulogizing his father, Angelo Leno, who had died the previous week of cancer at age 83.
It was special; it was memorable. Even rarer for television, it was genuine.
One of TV's oldest yet least-supportable cliches is that the camera doesn't lie--that no defense, tactic or sham, no matter how shrewd and well designed, is impervious to its laser lens. But of course the camera does lie. Or at the very least can be made to lie, or blur or shade or distort the truth when under the control of those who are nimble at manipulation. As their numbers and the sophistication of the technology increase, so, too, does the medium's potential for deception. Opportunistic politicians stand to benefit, as do journalist poseurs and other media actors.
And nowhere on television is the line separating acting and actuality less discernible than on celeb-laden late-night talk shows, where the performance--a guest's seemingly candid schmoozing with the host in front of millions of viewers--is often mistaken for some kind of bear-all, insightful truth. On the contrary, although there's nothing actually corrupt about the process, it's all part of the show. Give an actor a camera and he acts.
The few exceptions on TV include the times that Sally Jessy Raphael has spoken of the 1992 death of her daughter, Allison Vladimir, at age 33, and Johnny Carson's heartfelt comments in 1991 when, fighting back tears, he eulogized his 39-year-old son, Rick, who had died in an automobile accident. Carson displayed a photograph of his son, saying, "The picture in papers after the accident was the one on his driver's license. I don't think any of you would want to be remembered by the photo on your driver's license."
Leno's loving testimonial to his father was another infrequent example of TV honesty rearing its lovely head, one all the more meaningful because of the way the medium so often impersonalizes death by depicting or dwelling on it so routinely. And meaningful also because Leno's remarks were untypical of a show so deeply immersed in fun and joviality.
He acknowledged the awkward segue to serious monologue from funny monologue. Poignant without being maudlin, he began: "I don't know. . . . It's a shame when you do this every day. . . . You write jokes . . . and things happen in life. I'd thought I'd take a minute to sort of talk about them. . . . I just thought I would tell you a little bit about my dad, if I could."
Like all comics, Leno is an actor, too, and he told some funny/sweet stories about his father that made the studio audience laugh. Yet there was nothing false here and, even though you felt his emotion, there was no artificial sentiment calculated to evoke tears.
Leno mentioned that his mother, Catherine, had died last year, and that his dad "didn't really have much reason to go on once my mom went. Fifty-seven years they were married."
He said Angelo Leno had grown up a "street kid" in New York City. "Son of immigrant parents. I never knew how far my dad got in school. He would never tell me. I knew he quit somewhere. I don't know whether it was junior high or high school. He was a prize fighter and a truck driver and a mechanic. He went on to become an insurance salesman, and then he became a district manager and then went back to school and . . . a real up-from-the-bootstraps kind of guy."
Leno said he never heard his dad "say a cross word to my mom, never saw him raise his hand. Never saw him drunk." He said he also never heard his dad utter an "ethnic slur."
He recalled getting a letter from a woman in Harlem, where Angelo--in contrast to his colleagues, who felt that black people had no "future"--once sold insurance door to door. "And she was in her 60s, I guess. And she wanted to know if the Angelo Leno that came to her house (when she was a child) was possibly my dad. And I called her up, and we talked and she told me some of the stories."
One was that Leno's dad "was the only white person they've ever had in their home. . . . And my father would bring her gifts and candy and tell her stories."
Angelo Leno instinctively did the right thing, his famous son told America a week ago. "There are people who go through life . . . and you know they write letters and they march and they do those things, which is great. And there are people who just do the right thing. For whatever reason, they don't ask for any reward." Leno said he was proud of his dad for being one of those people.
For the first time, there was a crack in Leno's composure.
A slight tremor entered his voice as he continued, mentioning that "nobody was brought up righter than I was" and that his parents were always behind him, even during those troubled days when there were rumors that his job as Carson's successor was in jeopardy because NBC wanted Letterman.
Leno said he never understood until now what being "lonely at the top" meant. He said his parents "were always there for me to talk to. Even two years ago, when we were going through, 'Oh, is Jay going to get fired? Is he going to be replaced?,' my dad would always say, 'Hey, you fight the good fight, son. You just get in there and fight the good fight!'
"You know, it really is lonely at the top," Leno added. "You have no idea." He exhaled loudly, expelling a great woosh of emotion. "But . . . we'll fight the good fight, Pop."
Jay Leno and Angelo Leno. Story of the week.