End of an era on Thursday in the late-night racket – Jay Leno's final evening hosting The Tonight Show (NBC, 11:35 p.m.). Again.
When Johnny Carson finally left the job he sat on the Tonight Show set and said, obviously emotional, "I wish you a heartfelt goodnight." What Leno will do is unknown. But it's likely we haven't seen the last of Leno on late-night TV. The guy keeps coming back. And winning.
It's the winning part of the departure that irks Leno. He was on 60 Minutes recently, talking about his leave-taking. He said all the right things – it's time to leave, Jimmy Fallon is a great replacement, it's time for a younger guy to take the job. No, he's not bitter.
But beyond the guarded remarks, there seemed to be something bothering Leno. He's going out on top. It's not as if he's a failure. He wins the late-night war week after week. And yet, here's the curious thing – the end of Leno isn't generating much emotion. Nobody is shedding tears. And that's the key thing – while popular, he's never established an emotional dynamic, never seemed truly passionate, never had a poignant moment.
Leno's final guest will be Billy Crystal and the musical guest will be Garth Brooks. There's the rub – Leno will go out as he came in, the epitome of old-school showbiz. Crystal was Leno's first guest, 22 years ago, at a time when Crystal mattered, as an actor, comic and Oscars host. Now, like Leno, he's irrelevant. As for Garth Brooks, he's the epitome of bland.
Leno's always been bland and it caught up with him. He's always been so careful. His monologue, a joke-machine, had something for everyone – a pun here, a little self-deprecation there and mild sarcasm at the expense of some foolish politician. Nothing that jolts viewers, that might make them think Leno's gone too far or exposed something of his soul. He wouldn't, ever. He seems soulless, popular because his gentle comedy put viewers of a certain age to sleep.
Inside the TV and comedy rackets, Leno has always been an odd figure. The bizarre fandango of his first retirement from The Tonight Show, to be replaced by Conan O'Brien, followed by his retrieval of the job, unleashed spite that had been building for years. His blandness irritated other comics, his success made some envious. His devotion to NBC, both when NBC seemed to be shafting Letterman, and later, O'Brien, was thought unseemly and uncool. The opportunity to paint him as a bad guy, betrayer of O'Brien, was too tasty to resist.
And now, after the Winter Olympics, along comes Jimmy Fallon to take over The Tonight Show. Fallon, unlike Leno, is liked by both the mass audience and his peers in the TV racket. His enthusiasm seems genuine, his boyishness is obvious and his gift for music is undeniable. What's best about Fallon, perhaps, is that he seems to genuinely enjoy himself. He's engaged. He likes the digital world. He's enthralled by social media. He's not phoning it in, as Leno seems to have been doing for years.
The end to this Tonight Show period seems real. Fallon moves the show to New York. Most of Leno's staff will be laid off by NBC. Leno's ghost will not haunt Fallon's studio.
In that 60 Minutes interview, Leno speculated about returning to TV in some capacity. He joked about doing a show for the History channel. For all the joking, it remains a possibility. CNN has quashed rumours about Leno doing a late-night show, but that could be temporary.
Leno is a creature of late-night TV. Addicted to it, defined by it. Television has changed, but he has not. And there's something sad about that. But not sad enough for anyone to get emotional and teary about his last night on Tonight.