Jay Leno, as affably efficient backstage as he is in front of the camera, avoids waxing lyrical about his 22-year Tonight Show run that drew to a close last month.
Instead, he relies on numbers to tell the story. Leno’s tenure is second only to Johnny Carson’s 30 years; Tonight was No 1 among viewers when he took it over and was again when he handed it over to Jimmy Fallon; he’ll have taped more shows than any predecessor – Carson included – with the final and 4 610th episode.
His dry assessment also may stem from déjà vu. After all, he lived through this before.
He surrendered Tonight in 2009 to Conan O’Brien, only to reclaim it after NBC’s messy handling of the transition and O’Brien’s lacklustre ratings.
But this time it’s different, Leno contends, offering another hard fact – the older generation has to make way for the younger one.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth can keep 65-year-old Prince Charles cooling his heels. Leno didn’t have the power to do the same with Fallon, 39. The Late Night host moved the show from its longtime home in Los Angeles to its New York birthplace when he debuted as host on February 17.
“It’s been a wonderful job but this is the right time to leave,” said Leno, whose once dark mop of hair is now a groomed silver. “I’m at that age where I don’t really listen to (current) music any more. I’m not a big tweet guy. A 63-year-old guy reading Miley Cyrus’ tweets is a little creepy. Move on.”
He makes the argument with the precision of one of his reliable monologue jokes, just as he did when he claimed to understand NBC’s decision to evict him for O’Brien – even as he reamed the network on the air.
The years between then and now have seen changes come at a quickening pace, with an ever more crowded late-night arena and a shifting media environment.
Fallon’s parody music bits with contemporaries like Justin Timberlake are perfect cut-and-pastes for sites like YouTube that drive young viewer attention and offer new potential for ad sales as network revenues shrink.
In 2012, Tonight laid off 20 staffers and Leno took a 10 percent pay cut. The show has averaged a 3.5 million nightly viewership in the past 12 months, which pales in comparison with the double-digit audiences it once claimed.
Leno is planning to expand the comedy club gigs he never abandoned and various outlets for his passion for cars, including the Web show Jay Leno’s Garage, and the magazine and newspaper articles he writes. He insists his schedule won’t include another late-night show, which could only be what he calls Tonight Light.
“It’s hard to recreate this moment. It’s like the fighter coming back. You got to be world champion, so it’s kind of silly,” he said.
Tonight, launched in 1954, was shaped by original host Steve Allen and nurtured by successors Jack Paar and Carson. Following them represented the pinnacle for comedians. It was the role Leno coveted, and won, when Carson retired in 1992.
His first few months were marred by Leno’s longtime manager Helen Kushnick, who, as his first Tonight executive producer, was blamed for instigating nasty guest booking wars and fired in what then was characterised as one of TV’s biggest publicity nightmares.
Worse was to come when NBC’s Tonight host succession plan hatched in 2004 went awry. Leno, who stoically endured insults from Jimmy Kimmel and others who portrayed him as having stolen O’Brien’s job, says the past is past.
CBS’s David Letterman, who once jockeyed with Leno for Carson’s throne, echoed that.
“How long can I carry this with me?” he told Howard Stern during a SiriusXM interview on Friday. He spoke of calling Leno when his second Tonight departure was announced, their first conversation in several years, and tipped his hat to his rival when Stern asked if Leno sounded sad. “I wouldn’t say sad. There’s nothing to be sad about. He’s had a tremendous career there,” Letterman said, graciously.
Others have chimed in. Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher, a regular Tonight guest, and Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, Ted,) serenaded Leno last week to the tune of Thanks for the Memories, the same one Bette Midler used to sweetly honour Carson.
This parody was edgier.
“You’ve been retired and twice been fired for being No 1. How stupid they are,” the pair sang, zinging NBC as a surprised, bemused Leno watched.
Maher was expansive when asked to comment on Leno. “As a performer trying to make it in show business, and as a human being, you cannot do better than ask, ‘What would Jay do?’” he said.
Leno’s final show featured Billy Crystal, his first Tonight guest, and Garth Brooks. Leno’s legacy – a word that makes him squirm – might include expanding the show’s opening monologue; a memorable mea culpa from Hugh Grant after he was arrested in 1995 with a prostitute; the first interview with a sitting president, Barack Obama, in 2009; and the Jaywalking fixture, which trips up people with simple questions.
Leno’s favourite Q&A is that those queried about how Mount Rushmore was formed often reply, “erosion”. His head-shaking reaction: “The wind and rain not only picked four presidents, it picked four of our greatest presidents!”
Was he the most daring, most innovative, most surprising force in late-night? His critics and even admirers said no, and Leno doesn’t argue with them – but that’s not what counts. He says: “Whether you like the host or not, you cannot say it’s not been a success.”
Leno cannot be called unsophisticated but he is determinedly un-showbiz. He notes his modest New England upbringing, the high school friends he remains close to, his three-decade marriage to wife, Mavis, and the many Tonight staffers who remained loyal throughout his tenure.
Hollywood has been a place to tell jokes to a big audience and to reap millions of dollars, but also to keep a safe distance from the circus.
“When this is over, I don’t get to my table at (posh restaurant) Morton’s and” – he feigns dismay as he mimics a maître d’ – ‘Sorry, Mr Leno, this is Mr Fallon’s table’.”
Instead, after Leno stepped off the Tonight stage he travelled to Florida for a few club dates, his wife at his side. And, he said, he’s content with that. – Sapa-AP