Jay Leno’s Long Goodbye
This Monday, February 3, 2014 photo provided by NBC shows, Jimmy Fallon, left, and Jay Leno on season 22 of NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." On Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, Leno, 63, is stepping down for the second and presumably last time, making way for his successor, Fallon, in New York. Fallon, 39, starts his "Tonight" Feb. 17, with NBC hoping he rides the promotional wave of its Winter Olympics coverage. (AP Photo/NBC, Chris Haston)
If you feel an anticlimactic sense of been-there/done-that about a certain late-night talk show host surrendering his desk Thursday night, imagine how the TV critic feels. Or just imagine how America feels — the America that still watches television on television, that is.
Whatever appreciative or insightful words one can muster for Jay Leno’s second farewell from NBC’s The Tonight Show were pretty much the same words one might have written when Leno left the first time in 2009.
Politely sending Leno on his way was like trying to come up with another wedding toast for someone who keeps getting married, or a grocery-store sheet cake for the departing employee who keeps getting rehired as a contractor, or the meaningful eulogy for someone who burst out of the coffin once and might darn well do it again. (Like Leno, I stretch any quip as far as it’ll go.)
In spite of this fatigue — and a permanent indifference to both the real and imagined drama of the “late-night TV wars” — I’ve found it more than possible to appreciate and even savor the sentimental and resigned tone of Leno’s final episodes over the past several nights, bringing a close to his 22-year run. (A nearly 22-year run, that is, briefly interrupted by seven months of the unfairly doomed-from-the-start Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien of 2009-10.)
Through the playfully bitter resistance to retiring this time (a resistance brought into sharper relief a couple of weeks ago during a 60 Minutes interview), Leno has obviously enjoyed these last few nights, bringing on his favorite guests and seeming to have reached an acceptance phase in regard to the passage of time and the mannerly exit.
He likes to show his guests a clip of their first time on his show; in case their hair or their dewy innocence is too embarrassing, he likes to show them the clip of his first time on Johnny Carson’s show, when he was a gawky, shaggy young comedian in a lime-green 1970s suit.
Fallon came on Leno’s show Monday night (in advance of taking the show over Feb. 17), and after some (one hopes) good-natured jokes between the two men about the succession process, they both welcomed Betty White, each man offering an arm to the 92-year-old TV actress, who very dearly recounted her experiences with every Tonight Show host through the decades.
There seemed in those moments with White to be an implied message to all those Barcalounger viewers who’ve made The Tonight Show a lifelong habit (in real time, after the local news, rather than in clip form via tweets and status updates the next morning online), and the message was this: Who really cares who hosts The Tonight Show? The point is, it’s still on. The point is you’re still on, in the only sense that matters — still awake, still breathing, still able to tell stories about the difference between 1962 and 1978 and 1995 and 2014. Still able to work a remote control and acquire a signal. Be glad about that.
Of course, in this protracted series of goodbyes, it’s mostly been jokes about television from people on television — the worst and also easiest kind of banter and punch lines, which so often seem to be the only thing anyone ever talks about on talk shows anymore.
It’s also been a lot of jokes about being tossed to the curb (solid gold curbs on gold-paved streets traversed by an enormous fleet of pricey, collectible, Leno-owned automobiles and motorcycles, but a curb nonetheless). It’s been a lot of jokes about Leno coming back to the job once Fallon flunks out. (It can’t happen. It won’t happen.)
These last shows couldn’t help but be fraught with the subtext of generational clash, in which the older, esteemed journeyman is retired “before” his time (Leno will be 64 in April) in order to make way for the young turk — a conversation you are probably already tired of having at your own workplace.
The last time we did this, five years ago, the young turk replacing Leno was then 46-year-old Conan O’Brien, who is now 50; Fallon is 39. Fallon’s replacement on NBC’s Late Night, Seth Meyers, is 40; CBS’ David Letterman is 66 and the Late Late Show’s Craig Ferguson is 51; ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel is 46; Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart is 51 and Stephen Colbert is 49.
So when we talk about what’s on television in America after 11 o’clock at night, we can’t honestly say that it’s a discussion about the young vs. the old — none of these guys are technically young (and, it should be noted, none of them are minorities or women). What we’re really having is a longer and more complicated conversation about what’s funny now and how we prefer to watch it. Live? Clipped? Not at all?
O’Brien was and still is (on his little-discussed TBS talk show) demonstrably funnier than Leno when the measurement is irony.
Fallon is demonstrably funnier than both O’Brien and Leno when the measurement is insouciance and on-point satire of fame and pop culture.
Kimmel is funnier than the three of them when the measurement is a prankish knack for using the Internet — which is undeniably important and now commonly seen as the key to survival.
Letterman is funnier than anyone if and only if the measurement is self-deprecation and faux-naivete. (And Stewart and Colbert are funnier if and only if the audience sample is skewed by people still angry about the Bush years.)
But what I’ve enjoyed most about Leno’s last shows is that all the measuring seems more and more a moot point. The late-night wars are never over, but they seem to matter a whole lot less to us pop-culture civilians. What still matters to network executives and advertisers matters less to the rest of us, who are more keenly aware of a larger change in the air. Worrying about late-night TV ratings feels like reading old headlines. We’re saying goodbye to a lot, but I still believe that we’re saying hello to something better, fresher, faster.