February 7, 2014

THE SKED: Jay Leno Exits (Again)


For a determinedly noncontroversial guy, there may not have been a television figure in the last twenty-five years more scrutinized than Jay Leno.  He stood at the media epicenter in the 1990s, when he warred with David Letterman for Johnny Carson’s crown, then again when he was both predecessor of and inheritor to Conan O’Brien, and now here we are once again, as he’s purportedly passed the Tonight Show torch to Jimmy Fallon.  Leno was a symbol of the new talk-show generation when he took over from Carson, and now he’s the embodiment of the old guy whose time it is to leave.  Along the way, depending on who you ask, he’s also stood for either sturdy professionalism or the triumph of hackery.  Truth be told, the final chapter in his story has yet to be written:  if Fallon succeeds, the wisdom will be that it was indeed time for Letterman to own the older late-night viewers for whatever time he has left, while someone new battles not just Jimmy Kimmel and Conan but Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and all the other competition for young eyes after 11PM.  But if Fallon stumbles, NBC will be roasted for throwing away one of its very few talents who still consistently won his part of the day–and if Fallon fails badly enough, it could well be the case that like Jason Voorhies at the end of a Friday the 13th movie, Leno’s body won’t be found where it was supposed to have been buried.

For now, though, tonight was the last of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show tenure.  His final show was fittingly conventional, and aside from 2 or 3 minutes at the end where he choked up talking about the people he’s worked with, not all that emotional.  He took his usual passive-aggressive shots at NBC (“How many people get fired 3 times?  I get the hint.”) and showed some clips, mostly of politicians’ heads digitally put on other bodies for slapstick laughs.  His main guest was Billy Crystal, an old friend and the very first guest on his initial Tonight Show, but although the two had some fun talking about their early days together in the 1970s, Crystal missed the chance to be as memorable as Bette Midler’s legendary final appearance with Carson, because most of his appearance was clearly scripted, first with a prepared speech that he delivered before being seated next to Leno, and then with an elaborate “So Long, Farewell” parody that included a seemingly random group of celebrities that ran the gamut from Jim Parsons and Chris Paul (who delivered an LA Clippers punchline) to Sheryl Crow and Oprah Winfrey.  There had previously been a pre-taped “What Should Jay Do Next?” bit that featured, among others, President Obama, Charlie Sheen and an extremely awkward Jimmy Fallon (he invited Leno to come back to Tonight if he ever had any jokes that he needed to tell, while looking as though no prospect would make him more miserable).

And apart from a couple of Garth Brooks numbers, that was it.  Unlike just about every other talk-show host who’s followed in Johnny Carson’s footsteps over the past decades, Jay Leno never had any interest in remaking the form.  (Armchair psychiatrists can make what they will from Leno’s decision to close his end-of-show address by quoting Carson’s own farewell, considering that Carson made little secret of the fact that he wanted Letterman to get the Tonight Show job.)  Leno was, for 22 years, a first-rate caretaker, one who made sure the boiler was turned on in winter, the plants were watered, and the electricity stayed on.  For millions of people, that was exactly what they wanted before they went to sleep each night.  Jay Leno remains a paradox, enormously successful yet somehow little more than a footnote, instantly recognizable and insistently unmemorable.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."