Jay Leno: History Ph.D Student Watches 'Tonight Show' and Laments

Although it's being rumored that NBC is planning on replacing Tonight Show host Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon, Leno is still outranking his late night competitors at present. That said, I can't help but wonder who those people are, since it amazes me that no one has picked up on this hilarious (and sobering) incident.

On the February 26 episode, Leno did his weekly "Headlines" routine, wherein he spends several minutes showing the audience humorous newspaper misprints and inadvertently suggestive titles. While his critics often deride these segments for being too on-the-nose, they remain one of his longest running bits, as well as a reliable crowd pleaser. To open this set, Leno pulled out a casino advertisement that read "Stay Where The Presidents Play," underneath which were pictures of rolled up $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. For those of you who can't immediately recall which national heroes appear on which monetary tender, those feature Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Benjamin Franklin.


Even if you didn't find that funny, I hope you at least immediately got the joke. Because the audience sure didn't.

Check out the clip if you don't believe me. After Leno reads the headline, his audience — which normally cracks up at even his least successful gags — simply murmurs in confusion, with only a few scattered laughs breaking up what must have been palpable discomfort. After a brief pause, Leno exasperatedly begins to explain "See Benjamin Franklin was not president ..." before trailing off, simply glancing at Ricky Minor and, in his best kidding-on-the-square voice, quipping, "I see who's buying this paper."

Two thoughts. First, there is the necessary observation that we as a nation should not be surprised at the low quality of our political culture when an obvious joke about our founding fathers goes above the heads of a mainstream TV audience. Maybe I'm a tad naive (certainly my overestimation of the education of the average American shows insufficient cynicism for the academic world I inhabit), but I still expected better. Not that everyone would necessarily know the full details of Franklin's and Hamilton's careers, of course, but at least be aware that neither of them ever served as president.

But there is a second level on which the incident unnerves. Rewinding the footage, I noticed the precise way Leno read the punchline, sarcastically exclaiming, "You know, presidents like Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin ..." Even if someone hadn't previously known that the two men hadn't been president, whatever happened to basic deductive reasoning skills? Given the context of his remark and the heavy emphasis he placed on the two names, shouldn't they have been able to figure out that Hamilton and Franklin had been wrongly listed?

This may seem like nitpicking ... and that's because it is. Then again, not every day has a flurry of newsworthy stories, and sometimes smaller items get lost in the shuffle of big events even though their implications make them worthy of a little extra attention. While I happen to enjoy Leno's show more than most people my age, I certainly wouldn't argue that his comedy is highbrow (for that matter, I doubt he would either). As such, what does it say when a joke built on such rudimentary historical knowledge and comic delivery goes over so many people's heads?

I'll leave you to answer that question yourself and instead conclude with the comment that I'm amazed this clip hasn't gone viral. After all, Leno's making headlines right now anyway.

Leno's making headlines ... Headlines ... Get it?

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Matthew Rozsa

is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in "The Morning Call," "The Express-Times," "The Newark Star-Ledger," "The Baltimore Sun," and various college newspapers and blogs. I actively encourage people to reach out to me at matt.rozsa@gmail.com.

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