I’ve been a diehard late night talk show fan for most of my life and, until now, I’ve considered The Tonight Show the gold standard. I’ve watched Jack and Johnny and Jay consistently. I’ve sat in the audience during Conan, Merv and Johnny’s New York runs. And I never missed Dick Cavett and especially tune in Dave to catch his banter with Regis, Brian Williams, Tom Hanks, Martin Short and various political pundits. I’ve also regularly watched Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night show.
Every one of these guys has their own special brand of talent and appeal; and Jay Leno, who sadly and unjustly was forced to say goodbye last night for the second time in four years, was and will continue to be one of the great ones. He made me laugh out loud every night (except last night). His 22-year run at the helm of The Tonight Show was a ratings bonanza for NBC, a network that has been ratings challenged in all other timeslots … except late night, thanks to Jay.
Although no one comes close to replicating Johnny Carson’s magic and appeal, I am and always will be a big fan of Jay Leno. I was heartbroken when NBC “blindsided” Jay and gave him five years to finish his run and make way for Conan O’Brien in 2009. Despite the fact that Jay was consistently late night’s ratings champ, NBC wanted to keep Conan, who apparently threatened to bolt the network when his show’s contract ran out if he didn’t get to host The Tonight Show. NBC’s response? Let’s kick our ratings phenom, Jay Leno, to the curb to make way for a guy who supposedly appealed to a younger audience?
So where was that “younger demographic” when Conan O’Brien hit The Tonight Show boards? Conan failed miserably as The Tonight Show host, not because Leno wanted his seat back, but because nobody watched Conan. He was a terrible choice for that slot: his quirky, acerbic humor was ill-suited for The Tonight Show; any idiot could have figured that out in advance. After eight months, he was gone. But who got bad press for that fiasco? Jay Leno.
It’s now four years later and, despite Jay’s phenomenal 22-year run at the top, once again NBC has booted Jay for a younger guy, Jimmy Fallon. This time, there’s no reason to believe that Jimmy threatened to leave NBC, where’s he’s been content for five years on his own show and for years before that as a featured player on Saturday Night Live.
I’ve been particularly flabbergasted by some of the media naysayers who chalk Leno off as boring, middle of the road or too old to continue. It’s obvious that these pundits haven’t really watched Jay recently or considered why he pulls super high ratings. It’s clear to me and to his millions of fans (of all ages) that he’s not only a good, honest guy but that his humor is media savvy and speaks to the moment, whether political or cultural. Jay’s monologue is always hilarious, night after night, a feat that no one else comes even close to replicating. Nor do his competitors match the level of his writing as a whole, his delivery or his genuine grace with his guests. While Dave Letterman’s monologue may be topical, it is short on laughs; and Jimmy Fallon’s is still a work in progress.
I especially find it hard to understand the element of ageism that seems to have kickstarted this debacle. When Jay hit the streets for his many off-site segments (e.g., “Jay Walking” and his visits to local apartment complexes to engage residents in film or music spoofs), his affection for and appeal to young and old alike in those instances is obvious. His popular comic routines (“Headlines,” “Photo Booth” and “Pump Casting”) were always fresh, funny and a match for any of Johnny Carson’s classic bits.
I’ve watched Jimmy Fallon regularly, and he looks to be a good guy who doesn’t deserve to be pitted against Jay. He’s a remarkable mimic, especially of notable musicians, who visit often. His talented band, the Roots, are willing players in various skits. His co-writer sidekick, Higgins, is crass but plays well off Jimmy; and Jimmy’s cast of goofy regulars are comical nut jobs. Jimmy’s strong suit continues to be his musical segments, which have been clever and entertaining. But while his ongoing bro-mance with Justin Timberlake, his shticks like “Thank You Notes,” “Hashtags,” and “Celebrity Whispers” and game-playing on first or second go-round can be hilarious, they quickly wear thin. Why? Because they’re essentially juvenile.
And, so far, Jimmy’s not an interviewer. He gushes over every guest, and it’s tedious and sometimes painful (Hello, Emma Thompson!) to watch. I’ll be switching over to Dave when Jimmy’s guests start arriving, until Jimmy gets serious.
Jay Leno’s final show last night was extremely touching. Jay was uncharacteristically sentimental and teary as he recalled his 22-year Tonight Show timeline that, early on, saw the passing of his parents and his brother. He made clear his devoted attachment to his long-serving staff who became his surrogate family. Leno’s loss will leave a painful gap in millions of lives across America and in Jay’s life as well.
While I’m kind of glad that The Tonight Show will be back in New York, I’ll really miss Jay and laughing out loud every night, and so will millions of his fans. Do we really need to slog through producer Lorne Michaels’ Tonight Show clone of Saturday Night Live every night when SNL itself has been a real dud lately?
I will never understand NBC’s idiocy and shameful insensitivity to Jay and his fans (most especially NBC’s snub of the so-called “older demographic”). Hey, NBC! Baby Boomers are major consumers of new technology, too, and guess what? We know how to change the channel. To quote one of Jay Leno‘s most famous lines (to actor Hugh Grant after a major “goof”), NBC… “what the heck were you thinking?” –Judith Trojan
Yes, Jay Leno will be a tough act to follow. But the brilliant execs at NBC figure Fallon will draw in some new viewers with younger demographics. The question is… will it balance out those who will tune in to Letterman or elsewhere? We shall see.