Tuned In

American Civility's Loss, Jay Leno's Gain

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It all comes back around to Jay Leno today.

It doesn’t take a journalism degree to realize that this week public outbursts achieved the Rule of Threes, making them an official trend. Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” at President Obama; Serena Williams had a foot-fault freakout at the U.S. Open; and last night at MTV’s Video Music Awards, Kanye West crapped all over Taylor Swift’s moment by grabbing the mic from her to say that Beyoncé’s video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” should have won.

It didn’t take long for someone to connect at least two of the dots, above, on YouTube. Congratulations, jerks, spoilsports and drama queens! You win! The country is yours now!

So: what does this have to do with Jay Leno?

Tonight the very first Jay Leno Show airs. The very first musical guests are Jay-Z, Rihanna and… Kanye West. As scholars of pop culture—and pretty much everybody else—know, Leno turned his ratings around at The Tonight Show around the time he interviewed Hugh Grant after Grant’s prostitution scandal.

Some would argue that Leno’s ratings really got better because NBC had debuted the blockbuster ER, among other primetime successes, but let’s not let numbers get in the way of a convenient theory. In the popular retelling at least, Leno asked Grant the immortal question “What the hell were you thinking?,” catharsis was achieved, and Leno never looked back.

Without a doubt producers are convening at Jay Leno headquarters, trying to figure out how to come up with a way to ask “What the hell were you thinking?” for a new generation. And NBC must be thanking God for giving them evidence of their argument that The Jay Leno Show will be a hit because it can comment on watercooler topics. (I’d suggest they planned the whole thing with Kanye, but that would be too savvy a conspiracy to credit NBC with.)

The one problem, of course, is that Grant came along when Leno desperately needed a boost. With a massive amount of publicity, he was bound to get a big tune-in tonight regardless. What about later, when and if he really needs it? Well, it doesn’t look like he’ll have any shortage of subjects. Hell, just this week he could book 3/5 of his schedule with contrition appearances for West, Williams and Wilson, if they were willing.

And I don’t doubt there will be plenty of other public offenders in the pipeline. American bad behavior, it would appear is like a bag of Doritos. Crunch all you want, Jay. We’ll make more.