Yes, Jay Leno is bad. Awful, really. Just really, really terrible. A monster of human being, really. An unfunny monster. But we didn’t come here to disparage Mr. Leno, no matter how truly, truly awful he may be. Truly. Nope, we’ve gathered here today to issue a small reminder that, no matter bad Leno might be (just atrocious, really), he doesn’t even come close to ranking amongst the worst American talk show hosts of the past couple of decades.
Long before reality shows became the rubbish bin of pop-cultural riff-raff, that distinction belonged to the talk show, particularly in the wake the nascent cable business and the birth of post-big three television networks like Fox, UPN, and the WB (which, between them, are largely responsible for the continued Wayans domination of the entertainment industry).
So, before we all get ready to string up Leno by his comically-engorged chin, let’s take a moment to take stock in what we’ve got. Remember the words of Joni Mitchell, “something, something parking lot.” Truer words were never sung.
Magic Johnson: Magic Johnson brought a lot to the table when Fox offered up The Magic Hour in 1998. He’s one of the NBA’s all-time greats, he’s the owner of a chain of movie theaters, he’s friends with Arsenio Hall, he’s got HIV (which, for the record, plays a lot better in the mid-west than full-blown AIDS). The full package, really. Somehow the whole thing didn’t translate into prolonged ratings gold. The Magic Hour was cancelled after four months. Johnson promptly went home and cried alone in his Scrooge McDuck-like money vault.
Chevy Chase: Brace yourself, we’re about to let you in on one of entertainment’s dirty little secrets: Chevy Chase was never really that funny. Yep, true fact. Don’t believe us? Go check out an early episode of SNL. We’ll wait. See what we mean? Sure he’s been not terrible in some funny stuff — Caddyshack, a handful of the Vacation movies, heck, he’s fairly competent in Community. Asking Chase to host his show, on the other, hand, well… Even 45 minutes an episode was too much to ask. The Chevy Chase Show was cancelled after five weeks. That’s bad even by Fox talk show standards.
Pat Sajak: Honestly, Chevy Chase may well be the Typhoid Mary of talk show cancelation. The Fletch star was the first ever guest on the Wheel of Fortune host’s eponymous talk show, which, fittingly, was seemingly doomed from day one. Sajak abandoned his daytime duties hosting Wheel, but smartly held onto the nighttime version of the show. The Pat Sajak Show lasted 15 months. For the record, the other guests on that first episode were Dallas’s Joan Van Ark, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth (who, for the record, was on the outs at the time), and the Judds. Sometimes cancellation is for the greater good.
John McEnroe: The whole Magic Johnson thing went off like gangbusters, so why not give a talk show to another sports legend? Better yet, how about a sports legend who’s also infamous for being a bit of a dick? After all, perhaps the downfall of The Magic Hour was the fact that the basketball player was such a likeable guy and therefore couldn’t hold his own when called out by the likes of Howard Stern. CNBC, a network best know for its hard-hitting analysis of pork futures, gave the tennis bad boy his own show in 2004. The show eked by for an impressive six months, garnering an equally impressive Nielsen rating of 0.0 twice during its short life on this earth.
Joan Rivers: What is it with Fox? Honestly, it would have been much more cost effective to have rented out a couple of sexually adventurous rhesus monkeys from the Los Angeles Zoo every night. Instead the network spent half the 80s and the better part of the 90s handing off a late night block to anyone with a Hollywood zip code. Rivers, Johnny Carson’s one-time permanent guest host for The Tonight Show, was left off the list when it came time to find a full-time replacement. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers didn’t last a year. Rivers was banished to red carpet coverage where she belonged. Fox, for the record, actually found some success with her replacement — some guy named Arsenio Hall (the sidekick for the doomed Alan Thicke-hosted talk show, Thicke of the Night). Maybe she should have tried “woofing” more.