6 Questions About Jay Leno's Final Week on The Tonight Show

By Cory Barker

Feb 07, 2014

Thursday marked Jay Leno's last night as the host of The Tonight Show, one of American television's real cultural institutions. Leno has been at the helm of Tonight for 22 years—since 1992, when he quite controversially scored the job over David Letterman. And of course, Leno's been through this bad song-and-dance routine once before, when he begrudgingly and ultimately briefly handed the reigns to Conan O'Brien in 2009—only to return to Tonight after the failure of his ill-fated primetime series, The Jay Leno Show. But hey, THIS IS IT. Jimmy Fallon is replacing Leno (and Seth Meyers replacing Fallon), and Leno seems to be somewhat okay with it. He is officially done. But after watching each of this week's final four shows, I still have a few questions. Let's work them through together. 

(1) How does someone who hasn't been especially well-liked in the larger pop culture consciousness say goodbye?

Well, with a cavalcade of high-profile stars—Fallon, Matthew McConaughey, and Sandra Bullock before the final show, and Billy Crystal, Oprah, Kim Kardashian, Jack Black, and more during the last gasp—singing your praises (sometimes literally) and talking in SERIOUS voices about how you've been an amazing friend, supporter of their work, and all-around swell dude. These extended farewells tend to be as awkward as they come, even for the most self-effacing hosts and performers, but I gotta be honest, it wasn't easy to watch Crystal and Sandy B. reflect and reminisce. 

But knowing everything we know about Leno, it also wasn't surprising that his final broadcasts were littered with barely decent highlight packages full of "top" moments, very few of which you probably remember unless they involved Hugh Grant and hookers or the Terminator and gubernatorial politics. But when you think about it, those highlight reels, along with the final edition of the immortal comedy bit "Headlines" and lots of references to O.J. Simpson and Justin Bieber, were fitting for Leno's swan song: fully uninspired, but almost admirably committed to being so. 

In the very last minutes of Thursday's episode, Leno let himself be really vulnerable on camera for the first time that I can remember since his parents died (which he did mention as he signed off)—and I don't even specifically remember those moments because I was only like five at the time and obviously already cool enough to know that early Conan was better. He talked about how the staff of the Tonight Show had become his family, and said that the gig comprised the best 22 years of his life. But even in a supposedly 'real' moment, Leno made weird asides—like his acknowledgement that under his purview, The Tonight Show was always a union production. Dude, just let Garth Brooks play one more song so we can officially say goodbye to my dad's 1995, you know? 

Jay Leno's final episodes of The Tonight Show were not good, but they were absolutely episodes of Jay Leno's Tonight Show. Those things are basically one in the same.

(2) And how do we say goodbye to him?

Well, if my tweets during the final episode were any indication, with a minor mental breakdown. And another easy answer here might be a boot in the ass and a big weight lifted off our collective shoulders, because even if we agree that comedy is subjective and all that, Jay Leno is not great. He's not great at being funny, and his dedication to his own self-interest has been troublesome at times. 

BUT, he did host the freaking Tonight Show for more than two decades; that is impressive. We should, at worst, recognize that as an accomplishment and understand that for almost his entire run, Leno appealed to the people in the so-called flyover states and eventually, the people who still watch late night television in an internet age (P.S. those are still the same people in the flyover states). So maybe we shouldn't necessarily remember Leno as a comedic force, but as a broad showman with longevity? I can get behind that. 

(3) Hey, is Conan still mad at Jay?

Yes, Conan is still mad at Jay. I'm not a mental health professional, but that's not stable behavior. It's okay to move on now, Conan, I promise. I know you wanted that Tonight Show job, but you won! You started a mini-revolution online and you made people care about you in a way that staying on The Tonight Show would never have done. You're a cult hero of the mainstream variety. Just keep raking in that basic cable money. 

(4) What is Jay Leno's Legacy?

I keep thinking about loaded words like "legacy," and for Leno, it's probably going to be hard to escape the role he was cast in years ago when he snaked Letterman out of the Tonight Show job, and that Conan "incident" of 2010 didn't do anything to relieve him of that rep. Frankly, it'd be cool if Leno just embraced his villainous role. He hustled both Letterman and Conan out of one of, if not the, most precious gig in TV comedy! That's some straight-up wrestling heel stuff. Since he likes O.J. Simpson so much, maybe he'll write a tell-all book called If I Did It: How One Man With a Large Chin Could Have Clawed His Way to the Top of NBC (working title). 

Moreover, it's kind of funny that Leno said goodbye in the same week that CBS scooped up those Thursday-night NFL game rights and thus probably murdered the last bastion of cache that NBC's "Must See TV" block had. It was already dead, but CBS cut its head off this week, just to be safe. In any event, with Leno gone and NBC Thursday's done for, there are very few remnants of the dominant NBC that many of us grew up knowing so much about throughout parts of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Off the top of your head, you wouldn't necessarily put Leno together with Friends or ER or whatever else, but the connection is there—and now it's gone. 

In some ways, he's also leaving behind a certain kind of style in doing this job. Although everyone still focuses on the monologue, no one commits to it quite like Jay. And similarly, watching Leno's final week of shows, I couldn't help but notice the absence of internet-bait and glossy, produced bits. That makes sense, considering Leno's audience demographics, but man, even Letterman pulls out something different every once in a while that makes the web go nutty for a day or so. Leno hasn't done that, and he hasn't really tried. Ultimately, Leno is straight-up from another era, and for the most part, he's taking that era with him as he makes his exit.

(5) Who is late-night TV's big villain now?

This is such a juicy question to consider. For more than a decade, it's been so easy to point to Leno as the nadir of late-night comedy, and with good reason. But now he's out and, even though the landscape is more populated than ever with SEVEN notable hosts (Fallon, Meyers, Conan, Letterman, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert), none of those (ugh) white dudes is especially disliked, or at least not to the extent that Leno has been. As Conan's monologue and any number of potshots Letterman and Kimmel have taken over the years have shown, many members of the late-night community have had no problems taking shots at Leno. He's catalyzed them against him at times. But what now?

The tone of late-night TV could be very interesting to follow over the next couple of years. Letterman phones it in so hard these days, but it's difficult imagining anyone deciding to take pot shots at him. Meyers is the newbie, but as I've written before, I actually think he's supremely well-equipped to do the job, and everyone understands the need to be patient with first-timers. Will someone come at Conan? Will Kimmel decide that he needs a new target now that Leno's out of the picture? Will competition for Letterman's replacement turn Stewart and Colbert against one another? Will @midnight's Chris Hardwick admit to not liking something? These are important questions. If anything, Leno's departure will show us how much these dudes really like one another.

(6) Will Jay Leno somehow make his way back onto late-night TV within the next couple years?

Oh, without a doubt. Jay Leno will be back. Jay Leno will never die. Jay Leno will outlive us all and be telling O.J. Simpson jokes and talking about how Garth Brooks is his best buddy and collecting my 2009 Toyota Corolla as a classic car in 2060. You cannot escape Jay Leno.

Did you watch Leno's last Tonight Show? Will you miss him?

  • Comments (79)
Add a Comment
In reply to :
  • sethers1451 Feb 10, 2014

    Man, does this article reek of Millennial bullshit or what?

  • slayme3 Feb 08, 2014

    after how jay screwed conan - i couldn't care less about that prick

  • antdude Feb 08, 2014

    It was OK. I missed his first one before Coco took over. I noticed he didn't mention him. :(

  • Boozwaa Feb 08, 2014

    Well, I guess Mr Barker here, doesn't like Leno much. Your article shows your disdain for him. I only watched Leno every now and then and always thought he was funny. From what I have read about Leno, other than this article, He is a genuine nice guy. He took a 50% pay cut so his staff wouldn't have to lose their jobs and it would seem overall he is liked by many..., except by those who he competes with. Conan just wasn't working out it would seem from what I had read out here in SoCal, So as the nature of the entertainment business being what it is, of course Leno would move his way back in, since he didn't ask to leave the show to begin with.

  • brianblippman Feb 08, 2014

    Good riddance to a bad TV show. It was sad looking on twitter last night and seeing people be sad for Leno's "last" show. First, it was sad that people actually like him, and that they are on the internet. It was also sad that NBC's campaign to make people forget that Conan ever hosted the show and that Leno already did a "last" episode actually worked.

    Thankfully, Conan, Colbert and Stewart are continuing to make great late night shows, and aren't afraid to take risks . Conan's remote segments are still the best bits on any talk show.

    As for Leno's legacy? It will be known for one thing: Length. He never did anything special, and he never had anyone work for him or appear on the show that he helped "break" into comedy like Carson. On the other hand, Conan had a bunch of people come from his show(s) and move onto great success. Louis C.K., Bob Odenkirk, Dino Stamotopolus (spelling), Robert Smigel, Amy Poehler, Jack McBrayer, and probably even more that i can't think of. And Max Weinberg was the best band leader on any show.

  • nexpose Feb 08, 2014

    I was never a Leno fan so didn't start any of the hate for him due to that but in regard to all that it really changed the late night landscape. My dream late night landscape would have had Conan remain at Late Night then have Fallon come along for Late Late Show. ( Sorry Ferguson fans, just don't understand his thing.) I'd have even let Jay stand pat if I could have had those hosts on the different shows. Conan absolutely RULED with his style at Late Night and has NEVER been the same sad to say. I'm really concerned about Fallon if he's going to bow down to the middle America crowd and have the Duck Dynasty cast and Bill O'Reilly on every week practically like Leno did. If so, bye bye Fallon. I'm hoping not too much will change but with ratings pressure I think Fallon would cave. That'd be very sad to see. No idea how Seth Meyers will be but I just want a continuation of that original Late Night Conan / Fallon stuff. Somewhere, somehow. For me at least that hands down has been the best late night tv. Never did care for monologues but Conan and Fallon's sketches are right on the mark for my humor. The longer monologues kill the time for sketches and that'll hurt Fallon. Conan could have gone back to his ways at TBS and I have no clue why he didn't??? Sure, guess a little bit but not near enough.

    Leno played this character I feel and grew his audience by mass appeal humor which shows no depth. He's a lucky one to have kissed up since if only on the stand-up circuit he'd be like tons of those faded 70's / 80's comediens.

  • slayme3 Feb 08, 2014

    good post

  • Akyriel Feb 08, 2014

    Conan had things like Triumph the insult dog. Did he ever get that back or does NBC still maintain the "rights" to that? Wasn't that one of the things that was in contention when he left?

    Also, I believe The Tonight Show and Late Show mainly try to "sell" TV shows and movies and music using actors and performers to advertise and promote. These shows use to be more entertainment friendly, or rather Carson was in his time, and the early years of Leno and Letterman. The later shows that came on after seemed to be more free form and the hosts could do more of what they wanted. Fallon may now be more pressured to skew towards NBC's desired audience than before and made to adjust if he has to. Right now I think NBC thinks it's going to be automatic, but if ratings go below Letterman, if not lower, then it's going to be interesting if Fallon changes.

    I think Conan may be trying to hard to emulate The Tonight Show he wanted and/or maybe TBS could be pressuring him to be so, so who knows?

  • brianblippman Feb 09, 2014

    From what it looks like TBS seems to pretty much leave Conan alone, and for cable ratings i think he's still doing pretty well. He has a lot of friends in TV and movies that used to work with/for him in the 90s who are now working on/creating really popular shows now (Bob Odenkirk, Louis C.K., to name two). But his best interviews are still with other comedians (Will Ferrell, and the like) when it pretty much turns into them just messing with each other.

    And his remote bits are the best.

  • GolfDude825 Feb 08, 2014

    triumph appears very rarely on conan.. pretty much a money issue at this point, but he still is on conan.., same with the masterbating bear

  • layton2012 Feb 08, 2014

    Honestly I agree with many of the others, while I won't say this is a terrible article, it definitely seems mean-spirited for someone who has helmed the Tonight show for 22 years. I can't say I was ever a fan of Leno per say, I only really ever liked Headlines, but I also think it is time to get over what happened between him and Conan, yes, it is easy to put the blame on Leno, but the fact is Conan flopped, and instead of giving him time to grow NBC got impatient and didn't was to lose Leno to another network. While I won't say Leno didn't have a part in it, it was more NBC than it was ever Leno, and Leno primetime was a terrible idea. Leno is off the air, why bother to write about his final week, if you are just going to continue on with what we've been saying about Leno since the Conan debacle, if not before. Yeah, Jay has never been particularly funny, but he has been the staple of late night, since before I was born, so I say he deserves to be respected in his last (hopefully) week on the tonight show. I won't miss him, but I'm sure there are people that will, I wish Fallon and Meyers the best of luck, and hopefully it works better than it did for Conan.

  • Tanis_Ketra Feb 08, 2014

    Very well said and completely agree :)

  • Akyriel Feb 07, 2014

    For me, Leno's last week was underwhelming. I am surprised NBC did not at least give him a primetime retrospective special. Carson got at least two, that I know of, that looked back on the best moments of his time on the Tonight Show. Maybe they were afraid jokes would be made of his being back in primetime again - "Too soon?". It would have certainly been better than the seemingly last minute clip bits.

    Two things that always bothered me about Leno, you can probably say the same about Letterman and others, is that he never paid comedy forward, so to speak. His career was because of Carson, so why did he not do the same for today's aspiring comedians? Why hasn't Letterman, for that matter? Where are today's Lenos, Lettermans, Conans, Seinfelds, Shandlings, and so on? Is it that there are no more good comedians? Too vulgar for TV? Why have comedians anymore when you have a Comedy Channel? What?

    Another thing that bugged me was how the first or previous guest would basically be ignored by Leno and the show in general by the next guest. Carson seemed to be more inviting and allowing involvement of all guests. Now, the first guest seemed to disappear and be ignored afterwards by Leno to the point where you wonder why they just do not leave, as they do on other shows. Often, if they said or did anything on their own or in reaction to the next guest, you missed it or did not hear it. It wasn't always the case, depending on previous guest and such, but still something I often noticed. The show, as they all are now, became a more rigid formula of bulls***ting for a few minutes, then sell your show / movie, then next guest doing the same, then have the music artist get their 4 minutes of fame.

    Leno use to have variety on occasion, like Cirque de Soliel and Blue Man Group, but in the latter years that was few and far between, if at all. When was the last time you saw a magic act on late night?

    I still watch Letterman, even though he is the same in his way, just with less glossy production. My one peeve with him is how he keeps trotting out the same joke on a subject mater that is then weeks old. I think he may have had more comedians on than Leno too. Funny, I used to like ventriloquist and impressionists, but when he did weeks of those who do that, I found it oddly antiquated.

    I watch Ferguson, but he can get on my nerves. Sometimes I wish he would do better interviews when he has guests on that no one else does. When did Leno ever have Dr. Who on? He keeps jumping into the conversation and seems to constantly cut off his guests for his annoying class clown humor. Dial that back, shut up, and let your guests talk and/or finish what they have to say! I also think he should be one to get rid of his desk and just sit opposite in the other unused chair with a table between. Geoff was somewhat inspired, but wish they had, or will, made his skull interchangeable so thet you can swap out the Mohawk for something like spikes or just a plain skull to hang a hat on, if not left as is. Ferguson also needs to stop telling people the horse isn't real. Leave us something to believe in Craig! Finally, I miss the puppet music numbers. He seems to have really scaled backon sketches, video bits, talking to audience members, and the like too.

    Conan I never really watched. I have seen his TBS show, but I only watch if he has someone on I am interested in, particularly if they are not normally on the "big two" late night shows. However, that is rare, so i barely watch him. Anyone know what his ratings are? I like him, but there is something boring about him. I often wonder if he may have been better suited to a once-a-week variety type show. that would give him time to better develop a monologue and comedy sketches and bits.

    Why is Arsenio back? I have always liked him comedically, but he often shows he does not know his guests very well and I've now seen interviews that seem oddly cut short with nothing real of substance discussed - Nicole Beharie and Gabourey Sidibe being two that were wasted.

    Would love to see someone try and do what BBC America's Graham Norton does and bring everyone out at once.

    I have never really watched Kimmel or Fallon, but I did not much care for them when I did. Despite seeming likeable, something about Fallon irritates me and I do not quite know what it is. Maybe I need to give him a chance on Tonight and see if he still does.

  • maritimer00 Feb 07, 2014

    Sorry but when I think of Leno, I think of the NBC decision, no doubt fueled by Leno ego, to do Leno five nights a week in prime time and cancel a number of shows to accommodate it. NBC has yet to recover...

  • Deadeye666 Feb 07, 2014

    Granted, it´s been a while since I last saw Leno but from what I remember he was probably the worst interviewer out of all the current late night hosts. All he did was nod his head, look at his cards/notes and once in a while repeat the last word his guest had just said.

  • radrobd Feb 08, 2014

    Yes, a lot of Leno's guest (like Rosei O'Donnell) stated that Leno was not an attentive interviewer. That he would ask a question and when the camera panned to the guest talking, Leno would look at his notes for the next question or joke and not really pay attention to what they were saying. He wasn't having a conversation with them (like Carson did).

  • See More Comments (20)