After tomorrow, there are no more Tonights for Jay Leno.
The comedian-turned-talk-show host will end his 22-year run (give or take a few Conan-interrupted months in 2009-10) as host of television's most storied late-night franchise on Thursday (10:35 p.m., NBC), and as he does, his exit is being met mostly by a "Yeah, whatever" reaction from viewers of The Tonight Show and Leno's peers in the showbiz community.
It's a far cry from the tears, tributes and sentimentality that poured forth when Leno's predecessor, Johnny Carson, bade farewell to his TV audience back in May 1992. That was a farewell worthy of a king of late night; Leno's sendoff has been -- and will be, in a final instalment that features appearances by Billy Crystal (his first guest when he took over as The Tonight Show's host) and country singer Garth Brooks -- much more measured and modest.
Let's put it this way: Johnny was loved; Jay never rose beyond being liked, and there are many observers of the talk-show genre who simply never warmed up to Leno's style.
There are a lot of reasons for this, beginning with the Leno-vs.-Letterman debate that raged when Carson announced he was retiring and NBC executives began searching for a replacement. David Letterman, who at the time hosted Late Night in the post-Tonight slot, was Carson's preferred choice, but Leno lobbied hard and NBC ultimately handed him the reins. Letterman, of course, left NBC and started up The Late Show at CBS in direct competition to Tonight.
Throughout his hosting tenure, Leno has been criticized for being bland, boring and decidedly middle-of-the-road in his approach to The Tonight Show's humour. It was a shift that has been particularly disappointing to his peers in the comedy community, since the pre-Tonight Jay was considered one of the business's best standup acts.
Not gifted with the conversational grace or spontaneity of his predecessor, Leno never seemed to fully warm up to the interviewing part of the job; it was like he lived for the show-opening monologue and comedy bits (most notably Headlines and Jaywalking) and merely endured the rest of the hour.
Still, with few exceptions, Leno was the ratings leader in late night, besting Letterman so consistently that it simply became a foregone conclusion that The Tonight Show, despite across-the-board audience declines, would remain the most-watched late-night show.
"People can debate whether something was funny or not funny -- it's pretty subjective -- but what you can't change are the numbers," Leno recently told The Hollywood Reporter. "My job was to have the No. 1 show. I was given the No. 1 talk show and for the last 20 years, we've been the No. 1 talk show all the way through."
He's right. The numbers don't lie. But in an environment where competition has increased exponentially -- Carson was unchallenged as late night's ruler, but these days it's Jay vs. Dave. vs. Jimmy vs. Jimmy vs. Craig vs. Conan vs. Arsenio, with cable comics Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert also scrapping for a piece of the after-hours audience -- being reliably and risk-aversedly ratings-friendly isn't a recipe for creating a lasting late-night legacy.
If indifference was the reaction that marked most of his time at The Tonight Show, things took a decidedly dark turn toward hostility when Leno "retired" in 2009 and handed the hosting gig to Conan O'Brien, only to return six months later after NBC essentially forced O'Brien out by announcing that The Tonight Show would be moved back 30 minutes to make room for a Leno-led lead-in show.
Critics -- led by late-night competitor Jimmy Kimmel -- were ruthless in their condemnation of Leno for grabbing back what he had not-so-graciously released just a few months earlier. Still, no one can argue with the fact that when Leno returned to Tonight, Tonight returned to the top of the late-night ratings list.
But now, as he really, actually does prepare to leave, the lingering impression for many about Leno's departure is that it's both overdue and overdone. There will be songs and stories and handshakes and hugs, and probably even a few tears, but it's doubtful that Thursday's edition of The Tonight Show will ever be regarded as one of those "Where were you when... ?" TV moments.
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