Which Way Does Leno Lean?

His interview with Rush Limbaugh only increased the longstanding confusion about the popular host's politics

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Coming just days after David Letterman's interview with special guest President Obama, the appearance of conservative icon Rush Limbaugh on the Jay Leno Show on Thursday night made for an interesting juxtaposition. As some writers have observed, Letterman's liberal loyalties are becoming increasingly obvious, while Leno remains something of an enigma when it comes to politics. Though some have labeled him a "Red State" comedian, Leno tussled with Limbaugh over automaker bailouts, Social Security and Medicare. So where does he stand? Pundits on both sides of the aisle can't agree on whether or not Jay's their man.

Here's the breakdown:

Leno the Conservative

  • He Knows His Audience  Back when Leno first announced that he was leaving the Tonight Show in May, the Defamer's Cajun Boy pondered why there wasn't more of a public lament for the nation's number-one late night host. He took it for granted that Leno was Republican "it’d be easy and cheap to make a bunch of 'Jay Leno sucks' jokes here because the internet hates Jay Leno, mainly because he’s liked by the olds and people who live in red states, and the internet collectively tends to shit on anything liked by the olds and people who live in red states, but the question begs to be pondered—-Why is there no outpouring of emotion for Jay Leno leaving as host of The Tonight Show?" Similarly, a profile by Michael Hainey in GQ revealed Leno's own consideration of a conservative viewership: "There are a lot of jokes you tell on TV that wouldn’t get you two feet in a club. A joke about the president that kills in N.Y. or L.A., it’s a smart-ass joke in Indianapolis. That’s why I’m on the road all the time. You never want to have two feet in Beverly Hills."
  • He's Uncompromising  Trashing entertainment critics for having a liberal bias that automatically favors Letterman, Big Hollywood's John Nolte praised Leno for having the gall to go against the grain: "You want to be edgy in the entertainment business today? Be polite and keep the politics as across the board as possible. Walk on stage with the 'edgy' goal of wanting to entertain and take away from their daily frustrations as many people as possible. Jay Leno’s the new edgy, the new ballsy…And that lapel flag makes him a downright iconoclast. I didn’t see his show, but I’m pulling for him because all the right people are not."
  • He's Not That Different than Limbaugh, argued several commentators. At the Examiner, Anthony Strain noted their resemblence: "Actually the two are similar types: husky, self-made Everymen." Mediaite's Steve Kraukuer suggests that Leno and Letterman are variations on a theme: "In many ways, the entire interview could be summed up in Leno’s analogy about the differing political styles of the two men. 'I tend to come from the ‘is it cold in here?’ kind of guy, and you’re more ‘close that damn window,’ said Leno...If the Limbaugh interview were done on the Late Show with David Letterman, it would have tense and awkward and great TV. If it were done on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, it would have been deep and potentially argumentative, with a soundbite or two sure to get major media pick-up. If it were done on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, politics would largely be avoided in favor of comedy."

Leno the Liberal

  • He's a Michael Moore Fan  Leno recently conducted an extremely complimentary inteview with liberal lightning-rod Michael Moore, a point not lost The Nation's John Nichols: "Rarely since the days when author Gore Vidal regularly appeared on the 'Tonight' show with Johnny Carson has a popular television program on a commercial broadcast channel provided such extended and respectful treatment to a scathing critique of the corrupt status quo. Leno hailed Moore's new movie, 'Capitalism: A Love Story,' as 'the best film he's done.' The talk-show host described [it] as 'completely nonpartisan' -- and he's right: Moore goes after sold-out Democrats and sold-out Republicans -- before declaring: 'I was stunned by it, and I think it is the most fair film.'"
  • He's Green  The National Review's Brian Faughnan attacked the famous car-collecting host's knowledge of alternative fuels: "He seems to think that if a car is powered by something other than gas, it magically becomes non-polluting...If Ford really had developed a car that can travel 18 or 19 miles using no fuel, the company would undoubtedly be doing a lot better. The reality is that Leno is eschewing gasoline in favor of a combination of coal, natural gas, and nuclear to power his car...The Leno example is a reminder that for all the excitement over electric cars, there's no such thing as a free lunch -- no matter who tries to tell you there is."
  • He's Said So Himself  LA Weekly writer Nikki Finke made the mistake of labeling Leno "The Right Comic" back in 2003, after he showed up at Republican Governor Schwarzenegger's election victory party. An irate Leno responded to Finke's two separate articles accusing him of having a conservative political bent, resulting in a candid interview in which Leno disputed her charge:
Jay Leno says, “I’m not conservative. I’ve never voted that way in my life...He believes “the media is in the pocket of the government, and they don’t do their job” so “you have people like Michael Moore who do it for them.” He has on his joke-writing staff a number of former professional speechwriters for Democratic candidates. “No Republicans.”
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.