Leno Lets Go

By Rohan, Virginia | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), February 4, 2014 | Go to article overview

Leno Lets Go


Rohan, Virginia, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


Jay Leno is about to leave the NBC building.

Again.

On Thursday night, Leno will -- for the second time in five years -- bid farewell to "The Tonight Show." It's the climax of a two- plus-decades saga that has had more twists and turns than the Pacific Coast Highway.

Leno's impending departure has been a long and pretty under- promoted fare-well. Even the soul-baring, what-has-it-all-meant interview was left for rival CBS to conduct. Leno sat down with Steve Kroft for a "60 Minutes" interview that aired on Jan. 26.

It's small wonder NBC wouldn't want to revisit its handling of Leno and the "Tonight" franchise. The network would much rather call attention to "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," set to bow on Feb. 17. That's a far happier and less complicated narrative. Fallon, a gifted, sketch player and host and, by all accounts, an all-around nice guy, is bringing the program back to New York City, where Johnny Carson hosted it during his early tenure as Late-Night King. (Interestingly, Fallon is the first "Tonight" host since Carson to have "Starring," rather than "With," in the show's title.)

As "60 Minutes" pointed out, the 63-year-old Leno's handover to 39-year-old Fallon is "part of a demographic shift that is beginning to affect millions of baby boomers being pushed aside to make way for a younger generation" and reflects "a change in tastes, sensibilities and values." (And let's not forget the increasing challenge of staying up past 11 as one ages.)

It should be noted that Leno is still one of the nation's most popular and successful television personalities. "Tonight" is still the most watched late-night show. And there's no question that the guy has worked hard for that success.

If that sounds like a tepid endorsement, well, that's because I've always found Leno too middle-of-the-road for my taste. At the same time, though, I've long admired his indefatigability.

After Leno took over "Tonight" from Carson in 1992, I remember him tirelessly promoting NBC -- even if that meant doing special stand-up routines to woo advertisers, hanging out with a bunch of TV critics at a Los Angeles pool hall or accommodating NBC's affiliates, whether that involved making an appearance in a local market or recording promos for an NBC-affiliated station.

But Leno's "Tonight" tenure has had its turbulence.

In 1992, "Late Night" host David Letterman left NBC after losing a behind-the-scenes battle for "Tonight" -- a tale Bill Carter told in his juicy 1994 book, "The Late Shift," which became a savagely funny (and highly unflattering to NBC) same-named 1996 HBO movie.

Letterman, who was said to be Carson's choice to succeed him, ended up with CBS' "Late Show," a $14 million salary and, initially, an edge in the late-night ratings. …

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