TV reminds me that the world is unjust. Everyday I watch the news and hear from Mr. Newsie Newsman that innocents die in terrorist attacks, that the financial chasm between the rich and the poor widens steadily and that the space marble called Earth inches toward self-imposed environmental self-obliteration. But injustice never stings more than when word of it comes from the mouth of Jules Asner.
Along with every other major news outlet, E! announced Tuesday that NBC had signed Jay Leno to continue hosting “The Tonight Show” until early 2009. Over the next four years, Leno will earn $100 million. That’s roughly $96,000 per every dribbling opening monologue Leno delivers, which means about $24.96 million per year.
You know Jay Leno. He’s the chin with the talk show host attached – the one whose inoffensive brand of humor makes late night safe for Grandma. This is the guy who tries to squeeze laughs out of headline typos. This is the guy whose go-for-the-obvious-joke sense of humor tarnishes the sparkling reputation predecessor Johnny Carson earned for “The Tonight Show.”
(Leno is also a UCSB alumnus, but hey – they can’t all be winners, right?)
Apparently anxious to ditch his image as the Danny Tanner of late night, Leno this week spent a chunk of his newfound fortune hiring a Howard Stern flunky, “Stuttering” John Melendez, as his new announcer. Stern publicly criticized Leno’s choice, calling him “creatively bankrupt.” Leno, on the other hand, has succeeded only in finding a way to make his douche bag co-host Kevin Eubanks less cool.
I’m no David Letterman fan, but I think he’s funnier than Leno because he rips mercilessly on Dr. Phil. Letterman reportedly earns $30 million a year to host the “Late Show,” CBS’s answer to NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” The two salaries are exorbitant but comparable. However, I question why either one makes eight digits when some that are better skilled at comedy go impoverished – in celebrity terms, of course.
For instance, Conan O’Brien makes $8 million a year on “Late Night,” which follows Leno’s show. Beloved by college-aged audiences, O’Brien cracks jokes with character. Quirkiness like a cactus chef that plays “We Didn’t Start the Fire” on a flute snags high ratings with the 18- to 24-year-old demographic. It’s not everyone’s taste, for sure, but it doesn’t seem fair that Leno makes roughly four times what O’Brien makes.
And O’Brien is doing well, comparatively. Jon Stewart, whose wit makes Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” one of the sharpest half hours on television, makes a speculated $1.5 million per year.
Finding a definite annual salary for Tina Fey, head writer and cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” is difficult, but she makes less than $1 million for her work. “People in the past have made as much as $1 million [on SNL], so I’m told. Now it seems people are maxing out at $300,000 or so,” Fey told Writer’s Digest in 2000. Conversely, Kelly Ripa, the anti-Tina Fey, rakes in $5 million a year for he work on “Live With Regis and Kelly.”
If celebrities are going to be awarded such sums for comedy, they should deserve it. If studio execs had a clue in their heads, they’d use the money that keeps comedy dinosaurs like Leno and Letterman on life support and hire one of the many up-and-comers.
I hope Leno doesn’t spend any money on fixing his chin; presently, it’s the funniest thing about him. One day he’ll shuffle off into that comedy limbo that Johnny Carson went into, allowing an O’Brien or Stewart or Fey to make it big. In the meantime, there’s not much we TV viewers can do but laugh at the punch lines we like and wait until our comedic heroes age enough to become mainstream-friendly.
Daily Nexus opinion editor Drew Mackie wants to lick Tina Fey’s glasses.