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?