I know that O.J. Simpson is guilty of the crimes he’s accused of committing in Las Vegas, just as I knew he was guilty of murdering his wife and her friend in 1994. I also know that Phil Spector is a murderer with freaky hair. Robert Blake most likely killed his grifter wife. I knew at the time that the late Richard Jewell was a bumbling oaf who was probably involved in some nefarious activity the night of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. And I recognize that despite the jury result to the contrary, Michael Jackson is a dangerous, chimp-loving pedophile.
I know all these things because my former boss, Jay Leno, said so in so many words in his nightly monologue. As a writer for “The Tonight Show” from 1995 to 2005, my job consisted largely of waiting for public figures to be accused of something vile, preferably illegal. Murder was No. 1 on our hit parade. Once a public figure was accused, we writers pounced like mountain lions on a lame goat. The jokes did not necessarily have to be good (puns were accepted) but almost always assumed guilt.
Here is a sampling from Leno’s monologues after the Spector jury first appeared hung:
“Welcome to ‘The Tonight Show’ in Los Angeles -- home to the stupidest jurors in America.”
“Have you heard this? The Phil Spector trial is deadlocked 7 to 5 on the murder charges. They [jurors] were confused by something in the case. Yeah, I think it’s called evidence.”
“What do you have to do in this town to get convicted?”
“This is amazing to me. The jurors in the Phil Spector murder trial have reached an impasse. They cannot come up with a verdict. Now the defense is asking for a mistrial. A mistrial? I think that’s the whole problem. I think the jury missed the whole trial!”
Much like a hangman, a “Tonight Show” writer must recognize that as a well-paid jury-pool-tainter, your charge is to not question guilt. You’re paid for performing a task, period. The job description doesn’t allow asking if the targets deserve the ribbing. Not until I left the payroll did I begin to feel otherwise.
There were a few exceptions, the most notable of which involved Jewell, the former security guard who recently died. Early on, I suspected that he hadn’t planted any bomb at a concert at the park during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Officials released a recorded phone threat from the person they believed culpable, and it didn’t sound like Jewell. In TV interviews before being linked to the bombing, in which one person was killed and more than 100 injured, Jewell came across as an earnest man enjoying the attention.
I told Leno of my concerns, but the jokes about “Doofus Dick” Jewell continued unabated. It was an unprecedented nightly bashing of a non-public figure, and it was unfair and excessive. The FBI eventually cleared Jewell and praised him as a hero for quickly evacuating people near the bomb.
I also felt awkward with the nonstop “Wacko Jacko” jokes, of which I had generally banged out three or four before breakfast. Maybe Jackson was truly the depraved criminal portrayed in our monologues. Or maybe he was just a regular guy who liked to hang with kids and the bones of the Elephant Man.
The most potentially injurious jokes I wrote were about the parents of murdered JonBenet Ramsey. If not guilty, they still had to endure a national late-night drubbing insinuating that they had killed their own child. Although Leno has a reputation for presuming guilt the fastest and being the most relentless with mean jokes, almost all late-night hosts assume the accused are guilty. But does it matter? After all, it’s just comedy.
According to some recent studies, many Americans between 18 and 29 get some of their information about presidential elections from late-night shows. So isn’t it a fair assumption that the shows can also influence the hearts and minds of Americans in other matters?
When late-night shows are considered influential enough for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fred Thompson to announce their candidacies on them, shouldn’t these programs rein in material labeling people accused of crimes as guilty? Shouldn’t they at least stop calling most of them guilty after their acquittals? Or perhaps we should do away with the Los Angeles district attorney’s office and in court present Leno’s monologues, which almost always do a far superior job of convincing people of a defendant’s guilt than prosecutors.