Monday began Jay Leno’s farewell run on “The Tonight Show,” four nights of stars and tributes as he completes close to 22 years of late-night hosting. Friday night, NBC will begin Olympics coverage, then on Feb. 17 Jimmy Fallon will make a smooth transition into the “Tonight” job.
That, at least, is how things are supposed to go. It is also hard for many TV watchers to believe.
It is not just that Leno has reigned in late night for most of his decades on the job, and he is currently the most popular star in late-night TV. That, for all his money and success, to many viewers (especially those around Leno’s age, 63) he feels more like one of them than other hosts — they can identify with a guy who, even in a recent interview, was speaking with some awe of meeting John Glenn. That those fans who still laugh at Leno’s jokes may not warm to the younger, sillier, seemingly unpolished Fallon.
Leno, on his side, has spoken graciously about Fallon, who at his best is very funny. Leno has even compared Fallon to Johnny Carson, the legend that Leno had to follow (and all late-night hosts end up being measured against either Carson, Steve Allen or both). He has noted that Fallon is tuned into technology and social media in a way Leno can never be. (On Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” web-talk series, Leno brandishes a portable phone whose old, flip style makes Seinfeld laugh.) He notes that, in his 60s, he feels ready to move on.
But it doesn’t matter to some that Leno is being so kind. As Steve Kroft observed in a recent Leno interview on “60 Minutes,” Leno said all the right things in 2009 when he yielded “Tonight” to Conan O’Brien.
And the way that turned out — along with the war over “Tonight” after Carson — makes it seem incredible that Leno will placidly and permanently walk away not only from “Tonight,” but also from late-night TV generally.
He is an unabashed workaholic, using his off-hours from “Tonight” to do standup, which he has claimed will fill more of his time after Thursday. He is a notorious competitor, too, one schooled in struggle and failure.
His publicist’s 1978 biography of Leno, for instance, talks up his movie acting, which did not go anywhere. In 1984, when the Akron Civic was looking for a comic to perform, the offer of the already-seen-on-TV Leno was answered with, “Who is Jay Leno?” And even when Leno got the gig, ticket sales were poor.
So he kept working, harder it seemed than anyone else, ready to push for the best jobs he could get. When it came time to choose between Leno and David Letterman for the “Tonight” job, it was Leno who got it — and Letterman who moved over to CBS.
When, in 2009, NBC was ready to implement a five-years-in-the-making plan for O’Brien to succeed Leno, Leno made clear he was considering other venues. To keep him from leaving NBC and becoming its competitor, the network set up an awkward combination of O’Brien in late-night and Leno with a prime-time hour. Neither show worked in the ratings; soon enough, Leno was back at “Tonight” — and a bitter O’Brien moved on to cable’s TBS.
Friendships and collaborations were damaged. While Letterman and Leno have settled into something akin to a truce, Letterman fan Jimmy Kimmel still rarely misses a chance to speak ill of Leno. As for O’Brien, Leno recently told the Hollywood Reporter that they have not spoken since O’Brien left NBC.
But all this inside baseball misses some basic points about Leno. For starters, he is a classic funnyman; watch him riff to Seinfeld on “Comedians in Cars,” and you can see the comedic wheels turning, and his old friend Seinfeld laughing hard. He is almost aggressively charming, eager to please, and audiences have responded to it.
It’s not an audience that prefers Letterman’s edge, or the political bombs thrown by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. But it is an audience that outnumbers any other late-night talker’s. He has honed the perfect kind of humor for people who just want a couple of laughs before they go to sleep. Much the way people watched Carson more for the host than the guests, so Leno believes in the power of the monologue to the point that he’s stressed it to the more sketch-adept Fallon.
“The strength of ‘The Tonight Show’ has always been the monologue,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “The late-night shows that have failed are the ones where the monologue was weak — two minutes, three minutes. We do 14 minutes every night, which is almost a sitcom. It’s a lot of jokes, but for a lot of people it’s how they get their news. There are really only 18 celebrities in the world that mean anything rating-wise, if it’s even that many.”
Since May 1992, Leno has been looking for that great bundle of jokes. And he found enough of them that he leaves late night on top. He has insisted that he won’t try it again. But if, like some aging boxer, he has to hear the bell one more time, then it does not take away from what he has done.