Rest Easy, Bill: After 4,000 Clinton Jokes, Leno's Run Wraps Up

Thursday marks Jay Leno's last night hosting The Tonight Show on NBC. He's told a lot of jokes over the years, but his most common target has been Bill Clinton — so says a study from the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. Professor Robert Lichter explains why he's spent more than 20 years of his life cataloging late night TV jokes.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tonight is the end of Jay Leno's long run as host of NBC's "Tonight Show."

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's also the end of a chapter for Robert Lichter.

ROBERT LICHTER: I direct the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. Since the late 1980s, we've been tracking political humor on late night television.

BLOCK: And for Lichter's team, tonight means no more Leno jokes to study.

CORNISH: For years, Lichter's team has pored over the late night shows, but not Lichter himself.

LICHTER: I go to bed too early.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's his students who have been recording all those opening monologues.

LICHTER: This is like a treat for our best student coders. We let you laugh at the jokes while you're taking them down.

BLOCK: They found in all that cataloguing that many of Jay Leno's jokes had one particular target.

JAY LENO: That one person that brings it all together. That one person becomes the focus of what you're doing. Of course, for me, that person: Bill Clinton. God bless him.

(APPLAUSE)

LENO: Where would I have been? Oh, my God...

LICHTER: Leno's favorite target by far was Bill Clinton who accounted for over one out of every 10 jokes about all topics over the last 20-some years.

LENO: You know, we've done so many jokes but Bill Clinton and I really have a lot in common. He was elected in '92. I started in '92. He's still married to his first wife. I'm still married to my first wife. I smile when I sit behind my desk. He really smiles when he sits behind his desk.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: According to Lichter's math: over 4,000 Bill Clinton jokes.

BLOCK: And those numbers aren't lost on Leno.

LICHTER: Jay has actually in the past acknowledged our study. He mentioned that he heard some people track these things, and sort of shook his head and suggested that it's just a pretty weird thing that anybody would actually take his material that seriously. And it is.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTER: We are pretty weird for taking this stuff seriously for so many years.

BLOCK: Tonight in his last show, Leno may even make one last Clinton joke for old time's sake.

CORNISH: And Robert Lichter might even stay up to count it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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