I have watched your career closely over the years and wanted to share a few thoughts about the recent political rants on your show, along with a recent interview you did with Vulture.com.
But I want to talk a bit about your career first because it’s remarkable. I watched an awkward young man grow up to become a first-class entertainer hosting one of America’s very best late-night talk shows.
You did it in less than 20 years.
I first saw you on a Comedy Central show in the late 1990s. You played the Everyman sidekick to the know-it-all economist host Ben Stein in “Win Ben Stein’s Money.” You were very funny.
Your next career choice was less inspiring. You were the co-host of “The Man Show,” which should have been called the “Man-Boy Show” because the content was so sophomoric.
You called the series a satire, but you know it wasn’t. I call to attention the Juggy Dancers, your official bikini-clad program cheerleaders, and a segment you called the “Juggy Talent Show,” which anyone can watch by doing a Google search.
Not a single viewer will call what they see there “satire.” Watching the young bikini-clad “Man Show” Juggy Dancers debase themselves for a gaggle of boys had the feel of an MTV spring break special, not the comedy of Mort Sahl or George Carlin.
Jimmy, you asked the girls to do things I’m certain you’d never ask your daughter to do.
You asked Danny to do a split all the way to the ground, and she did it to the delight of screaming boys. You asked Nikki to do “the worm” — which involved this beautiful young woman flailing her nearly naked body along the ground like a … worm. You asked Paula to put her head between her legs and lick one of them. You asked Nicole to eat a banana on stage. And you saved the worst for last, as you asked the Juggy Twins — Julie and Chanie — to pretend they were at a baseball game and to start a wave with their … breasts.
That wasn’t satire, Jimmy, and it was not funny. I’m no prude. Like you, I deplore political correctness. But this wasn’t politically incorrect comedy you were doing; it was wet T-shirt contest comedy — and it was beneath your talents.
Then came the news that you were getting your own late-night television gig. I gave you another chance, and you didn’t disappoint. The talented guy I always thought you were shined almost instantly. You assembled some terrific writers, and each night did a superb job of entertaining me as my day came to an end.
The Matt Damon bit was terrific. You ended each show by apologizing to Matt that you ran out of time and couldn’t have him on. You did it again and again, pretending you’d bumped the big star. It was a running gag that some people didn’t even know was a gag. And when Damon finally did show up, you ran a montage of yourself bumping the star, then did a long introduction — and when Damon finally appeared, you apologized and told him the show was over. You bumped him on the air. He pretended to be upset. It was so smart and funny. It poked fun at celebrity culture and the self-importance of stars.
Then there was the classic Harrison Ford spat with Chewbacca. The bit started with Ford in his dressing room talking with his former co-star from the original “Star Wars” movie. The talk soon turned into a fight over some kind of implied indiscretion Chewbacca had with Ford’s wife. The staged segment ended with a furious Ford storming off the set. It was so damned funny.
Another classic: Your team had on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and though he may not have been your kind of guy, you did your best to entertain us. The bit your team came up with was classic. You told the future president you’d ghost-written a children’s book. You held up the book, which was filled with funny Dr. Seuss-like illustrations and prose, and began to read as you turned the pages for all of us to see. The kids’ book was called “Winners Aren’t Losers.” Here are some excerpts.
Winners aren’t losers. They’re winners like me.
A loser’s a loser. Which one will you be?
Winners do deals and winners get rich!
While sad little losers just sit there and b****.
The audience exploded with laughter. Trump did, too. The piece mocked him, but in a decent and clever way. Trump chimed in after those very funny lines and said, “This could be a big seller.” You continued reading:
Oh the places you’ll go, On your yacht! On your plane!
With your suits from Milan and your wives from Ukraine.
Oh, the buildings you’ll build! Oh, the wealth you’ll amass!
Oh, the people around you all kissing your a**!
You closed things out with the last page:
There are two kinds of people, which one will you be?
A loser like them? Or a winner…
At this point, you asked Trump to read the very last two words of the book. He did:
“Or a winner like me!”
The crowd roared. It was brilliant sketch comedy, and you’d done your job. You made us laugh. All of us. Fans of Trump. People who didn’t like Trump. People who didn’t really have an opinion either way.
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Remarkably, through your God-given talent, we were all brought closer together by your work. What a precious gift, Jimmy — bringing people together through laughter.
That’s why I was so disappointed to watch you enter the political mix and comment directly on the news of the day, actively choosing political sides.
You have every right to do it. But it’s not what I tuned in to see, Jimmy. In fact, I tuned into your show each night to get away from the political discourse, to escape it all and have a few laughs. That’s no small thing. Indeed, it is a very big thing.
When you performed your political rant about health care and talked about your son’s health condition, I was shocked. Because it started off so personally and then ended so rudely. You acted as if anyone who disagreed with the notion that health care should be a right, or be free, was somehow callous or insensitive, that anyone who opposed Obamacare was somehow a bad person.
You were not similarly outraged when then-President Barack Obama’s health care promises turned out to be very big lies. You were not outraged that millions of Americans were priced out of the market and lost their coverage. Where was that speech about all of those parents? Deductibles shot up, and co-pays too — something Obama promised would not happen.
When something as important as health care is free, many of us worry, the excellence of care just might be lost. The best people may not want to become doctors. The best and brightest might not want to work in the scientific fields advancing medical innovations. Many of us worry that if the government takes over health care entirely, patients will lose and bureaucrats will win. The rich will buy their way out, but the rest of us will be looking at long lines, rationing — and worse. Many of us believe there just might be a better way to do all of this than anyone knows.
Know this too, Jimmy. Nearly half the country had a poor opinion of former President Obama and how he handled many things, particularly his utter disdain for the lives of folks who are not urban. His comment about how rural Americans “cling to guns or religion” was ugly. It didn’t burn you up, that senseless commentary. No speech from you on that.
Not once when Obama was president, actually, did you enter the mix with hard political commentary. Maybe that’s because you live around people who mostly agreed with his policy objectives.
When Obama essentially declared a war on coal and helped put countless coal miners out of work, that didn’t bother you. All of those displaced families. All of that pain and loss.
When Obama called ISIS the junior varsity, when he declared an end date to the war in Iraq and the country was essentially handed over to that not-so-junior varsity squad of terrorists, I heard no speech about any of it.
I heard no long speech about all of the Christians murdered in the Middle East for simply being Christian. Not a word on your show.
Do you see where I am going, Jimmy? When do you decide to jump in and be a commentator? How do you decide?
By the way, I would not have liked it if you weighed in when I agreed with you, either. Because it’s not what I signed up for when I watched your show. I watched you for a very serious reason: I wanted to laugh and leave the worries of the world — real and imagined — behind.
I wanted to leave behind me the Rachel Maddows, Tucker Carlsons and the heated Right vs. Left rhetoric of every wannabe blogger and Facebook poster and just have some laughs — and some lightness.
You were asked this week by Vulture.com about whether you think the days of the apolitical late-night host are over? You gave a tragic answer.
“Maybe we’ll never go back. Maybe the days of fun are over,” you said. “I go to bed worried and I wake up worried, and I honestly don’t know if things are going to be OK.”
Jimmy, do you hear yourself? “Maybe the days of fun are over”? Are things really that bad, because I am hearing a joke about to creep into the mix?
Indeed, it is during tough times that we need jokes the most.
And given the really tough times of the past — such as the Great Depression, the Civil War, two world wars and an actual revolution — this may be the most hyped-up rough patch we’ve ever lived through as a country, as we have a record high Dow Jones, record low unemployment, near-record low crime and record high consumer confidence.
Could it be that you might want to start poking fun at this hysteria, rather than becoming a part of it? Isn’t that the comic’s job?
And then you felt compelled to do your gun rant. It followed a terrible national tragedy. You just couldn’t help yourself. And you put the blame straight on the shoulders of the gun lobby, which is not a lobby for guns, Jimmy. It represents real-life American citizens — millions upon millions — who own guns. Three in 10 Americans own a gun. Another 11 percent live with someone who owns one. Rural Americans own guns at a much higher rate and sometimes for really serious reasons. And sometimes not so serious reasons, too — collecting, sport, etc. Many of those people worry there are folks in Washington, D.C., who don’t care for the Second Amendment.
You could have paid respect to the dead and moved on, but you felt called to comment. You felt that somehow, because you had a platform, you should use it. Even though that platform was provided, in part, by people like me.
It was rude. Worse, it was predictable. That’s a combination I never expected from you.
You’ve so lost perspective that at one point during your interview with Vulture, you uttered these words: “Everything Donald Trump is doing and undoing is bad, bad, bad, bad, and it seems so obvious, and it’s happening anyway.”
Jimmy, do you hear yourself? “Everything”? Is tax reform bad? Is reducing the regulatory burden on business owners bad? Is appointing judges who respect the Constitution bad? Maybe to folks who vote Democrat — but these are very traditional Republican values. Indeed, former President John F. Kennedy believed tax cuts were a good thing, too.
Jimmy, I was once a big fan. Now I’m not. You lost me, and you don’t seem to care. And so I ask: Have you lost Democrat listeners in the same volume? Or does your commitment to tell the truth only run down one political road?
I think you and I can agree that the greatest to sit in the late-night seat was Johnny Carson. He lived through some tumultuous times. The Vietnam War. Race riots. Assassinations. Gas lines. Embassy takeovers. Stagflation and painfully high unemployment rates. Heck, at one point during the early ’80s, mortgage rates were 16 percent. Can you imagine being a young parent with a family trying to buy a home with rates like that? The American Dream seemed lost. But time passed, and the crisis of the day passed. Always.
Carson understood his role and knew it wasn’t his place to weigh in on political subjects. This is what he told Barbara Walters in 1984: “I think one of the dangers if you are a comedian, which basically I am, is that if you start to take yourself too seriously and start to comment on social issues, your sense of humor suffers somewhere.”
He wasn’t finished. “Some critics over the years have said that our show doesn’t have great sociological value. It’s not controversial, it’s not deep. But ‘The Tonight Show’ basically is designed to amuse people. To make them laugh.”
These were Carson’s final words at the end of his last show in 1992: “It has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all of these years and let me entertain you.” Carson honored all of us — Republican, Democrat and independent alike — by never abusing his privilege and always understanding his proper role in life, and the importance of that role.
Jimmy, we need more laughs in this world and fewer political rants and lectures. You do something so much more important than political commentary. It’s something that requires so much more God-given talent. Bringing the world together through laughter is almost, dare I say, sacred. So few Americans possess the skill and understanding to do it.
You used to do it on such a high level. Here is one fan hoping you’ll return to that space again. And hoping you’ll invite an ordinary guy like me on the show as a guest to talk about what I just wrote. It would be really good TV, I promise.
I think you are a good guy. And a fair guy, too. But one who doesn’t have anyone in his ear telling you the things I just told you. And that’s really too bad for all of us.
All the best from a former — and hopeful — fan,
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.