Moving ‘The Tonight Show’ to New York Robs Our State of Its Biggest Stage

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

It’s dangerous for a people to declare one man their enemy and hunt him down. It’s unwise for a state to scapegoat one man for its problems.

Nevertheless, I think California should make an exception and declare war on Jimmy Fallon.

Yes, I know. The comedian who is taking over The Tonight Show next week is cute and cuddly and funny. Yes, he has a combination of musical chops and comic timing that make him a consummate entertainer. And yes, I find his impression of the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb irresistible.

None of this, however, absolves him of the great crime he has committed against our state: relocating The Tonight Show from the San Fernando Valley city of Burbank to New York City.

For all the attention this move has received from the media, the stories have missed the point. The Tonight Show’s move to New York is a blow not merely because it cost 200 people their jobs, or because of what it symbolizes for Hollywood promotion and production, or because of the expected decline in tourists visiting the section of Burbank where the show was taped each weekday afternoon for broadcast at 11:35 p.m.

Fallon’s theft of The Tonight Show robs California of its biggest stage for statewide communication, a rare place where a Californian (Leno) could ask questions of presidents, governors, mayors, and moguls—and all Californians could hear the answers.

We’re missing the depth of this loss because The Tonight Show was first and foremost a forum for movie stars and other entertainers, and because it was a national entity with a national audience. But California is so big, with so many different media markets, that there are few other shows or venues that reach all of us.

Tonight did, and not just because it has taken place in Burbank for the past 40 years. Johnny Carson, the comic saint who moved filming from New York to L.A., made the state and its people a character on the show through jokes about Southern California driving habits and watering holes and by booking local comics and entertainers.

His successor, Jay Leno, may not have been as funny as Carson (who is?), and he grew up in Massachusetts, but he was much more a part of California life. Part of this was personal—Leno and his wife are reliable supporters of all sorts of local charities—but much of it was the show.

Leno consistently put California newsmakers—from mayors to sports stars—on the air, and got them to say things that were picked up by other media. Presidents and other national politicians, on their frequent California trips to raise money, routinely ignored local journalists and rarely held town halls with citizens—but they couldn’t ignore the power of the Tonight Show stage. As a result, Leno was often the only Californian who got to question these powerful visitors in a public forum.

And Leno’s regular bit, “Jaywalking,” in which he asked people on our streets very basic questions about government and society, was a devastating critique of the state of civics education in California. By highlighting the ignorance of citizens, Leno also raised the crucial question, still unanswered, of why we trust these citizens to provide final verdicts, via ballot measures, on so many complicated questions.

Leno’s ability to break news was such that, as a Los Angeles Times reporter, I was dispatched a half-dozen times during my eight years there to cover the show, which meant sitting down the hall from The Tonight Show studio in a nearly empty, very cold studio, often with only a colleague from the Associated Press for companionship.

No one made more news on the show than Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made his surprise entry into California politics in Leno’s studio. Schwarzenegger was friends with Leno and was comfortable promoting movies on his show, but he also chose The Tonight Show because it was the best way he had to reach all of California at once. And, while in office, he would return often to talk about politics and government. One of the many frustrations of covering Schwarzenegger (about whom I wrote a book) was that he was more frank on Leno—where he first let on that he had no problem with same-sex marriage—than with us reporters.

And now Fallon, that most cunning and likable enemy of the state, has taken our stage away from us. The move to New York makes sense—for him. Fallon has Brooklyn roots and was raised in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. And his years in Los Angeles, in the middle of the previous decade, were not happy ones. He made two movies that didn’t do well, and “I was probably drinking more than I should have been drinking,” he told Vanity Fair. (Perhaps if more of us had gone to see Taxi or Fever Pitch, California wouldn’t be losing The Tonight Show.)

What can we do? We could beg, but that would be unseemly. We could start a boycott of all things New York, but I would miss bagels and New York Times wedding announcements. Some will suggest using tax credits to lure the show back, but we already have too much corporate welfare in this state. Bottom line: If any Californian has blackmailable information on Fallon, now is the time to use it.

Better yet, Californians can get busy on a replacement. Neither of the two major comedy-variety shows based in Los Angeles—hosted by Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel—reaches enough of us. Which creates an opportunity for some enterprising and entertaining Californian to come up with a show—or some new kind of venue—that truly can serve as a space for Californians. We’ve lost Tonight. Let’s get started on tomorrow.

Originally published in  Zocalo Public Square.

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