Thursday, June 10, 2010

Value Meal or Last Meal: Jay Leno and the Death Penalty

BROOKLYN, New York -- I never thought that this blog would get dragged into the insipid mire of America's Late Night Wars, but Jay Leno has forced my hand.

While the various programs may jockey for ratings, in terms of quality, the winner is so obvious that it pains me that this is even a conversation i
n America. Jay Leno is a mean-spirited hack. All the hosts, from Grand Master Letterman, to my beloved Ferguson, to oft-forgotten Kimmel, go after the low-hanging fruit of celebrity scandal, but Leno poaches exclusively in this preserve. Watch his monologue, and you will find that almost without exception, every single so-called joke is a vicious personal attack.

Now, this blog was not created to rush to the defense of the likes of Lindsay Lohan (she does cocaine! Ha!) and Jon Gosselin (he's sort of fat and balding! Double Ha, Jay!), but a recent segment on The Tonight Show did go after some defenseless people in a misguided stab at humor: America's death row inmates.

Jay unveiled a bit this season (he calls it "one of my new favorites"), "Value Meal or Last Meal," in which he offers up a menu of items, and then invites the audience to guess whether this is a prisoner's last request or a combo dinner option from a chain restaurant. The two times I have seen the bit, the offerings have indeed been revolting concoctions from Applebee's and Chili's, not death row fare. To me, this indicates that Leno is happy make light of the desperate situations of men and women who are facing certain death at the hands of the state, but he is too cowardly to openly mock them, instead turning his sights at the last moment onto fast food restaurants. The meals are usually enormous and enormously unhealthy, and the crowd seems to believe that the big reveal will be that this is a last meal, not a value meal. This whole segment plays on the notion that death row inmates are overweight simpletons who choose to spend their last moments stuffing their faces with fried food. It degrades their deaths and trivializes a monstrous practice. As for the innocent victims of the executed, all I will say is that you do not need to demean one life to celebrate another, and Jay Leno is not championing victims' rights with this bit.

Now, if Leno wants some really funny material, one of the most hilarious last meals of all time must have been that of Rickey Ray Rector. Rector, executed in 1992 by the state of Arkansas, asked for steak, fried chicken with gravy, cherry Kool-Aid and a slice of pecan pie. Nothing about that meal seems outwardly funny – he didn't order grotesque amounts of fried foods, as Leno finds so hilarious, nor did he order anything bizarre or exotic. No, the gut-busting part is his dessert – you see, Rector was so severely mentally handicapped that he set aside his piece of pie to save for later, believing that as soon as this whole ordeal was over, he would be back in cell where he could enjoy his dessert in peace. That right there is comedy gold, Jay.

There are other options that would fit Jay's sensibilities nicely. He could make a joke about the fact that inmates in the federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana have to place their orders for their last meal at least seven days prior to their execution date – "That federal bureaucracy is such a nightmare!" Or how about the fact that many states mandate in their execution protocols that prisoners eat their last meal at least several hours before the death penalty is administered. This is largely to maintain the atmosphere that a pseudo-medical procedure is being carried out, much like you are not supposed to eat the day before major surgery. Jay could riff on this with a zinger like, "Hey, I'm going to die anyway, I don't care if I throw up a little bit on my shirt!"

Finally, Leno has got to do this segment about Edward Earl Johnson, a 26-year-old man executed by Mississippi in 1987 for the murder of a sheriff, a crime of which many believe he was innocent. His final two weeks of life, including his last meal, were documented in the film 14 Days in May. He ate his last meal surrounded by friends and family in the Parchman Prison Farm. Leno could use this moment to really run with his family restaurant/death chamber dichotomy – "Is this guy in prison or at a Bennigan's?!"

If you can't stomach a second more than is absolutely necessary of Jay Leno, fast forward the clip below to the 6:00 mark to see the segment from the May 28 episode of The Tonight Show.

Should Jay Leno decide to use any of this Grade-A material I have written for him, I would expect an invitation to The Tonight Show, where I plan to behave like this when he ruins it with his horrid delivery.