Leno's latest goodbye

Posted: February 07, 2014

* THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO. 11:35 tonight, NBC10.

I DIDN'T think it was possible, but I'm feeling a little sorry for Jay Leno.

Tonight, it'll be deja vu all over again as Leno says goodbye to "The Tonight Show," which he's hosted - on and off - since 1992, when he replaced Johnny Carson.

(That transition, chronicled in Bill Carter's terrific book "The Late Shift," led to a passed-over David Letterman fleeing NBC for CBS.)

Nearly five years after the top-rated late-night host stepped aside for Conan O'Brien (only to return in 2010 after a ratings dive sent NBC into panic), he's stepping aside for Jimmy Fallon.

And apparently no more eagerly than the first time.

Sure, he's said nice things about Fallon, who takes over "Tonight" on Feb. 17 and who's been careful in interviews to say he was in no hurry to move from NBC's "Late Night." (His predecessor, O'Brien, had a contract that guaranteed him the "Tonight Show" job in 2009.)

"When [Leno] felt like it was the right time, he called me and said, 'I think it's the right time. And I think you're the guy who should do it. You're the closest to what Johnny was doing.' Which was the ultimate compliment," Fallon told me in an interview at NBC10, in November.

Leno, though, is nothing if not passive-aggressive, and from his recent "60 Minutes" interview to his monologues there are signals that this isn't a situation entirely of his choosing.

On Monday, as he prepared to welcome Fallon as a guest for the last time, he joked, "You know, Jimmy starts the new 'Tonight Show' on the 17th, and it would be a shame if there was some sort of accident and he was not able to . . . fulfill his duties as host."

Fallon played along, even pretending to have received the kiss of death, and the two did their best to make the handoff warm and funny.

But later, as Leno told his other guest, Betty White, "You're 92 and doing two shows. That wouldn't happen on NBC." Slightly Aggrieved Jay was back.

Whether or not it would be better for Leno to just let it go - because it's not as if he's going to starve, or even stop working - this is not what going out on top is supposed to look like.

And at a time when many people have lost or are feeling insecure in jobs that they, too, believed themselves to be doing well, the sight of a successful 63-year-old man being shown the door to make way for a 39-year-old is bound to rankle.

Personally, I chose Letterman over Leno years ago, and while I try to periodically drop in on everyone in the increasingly crowded late-night field, most nights my choice is between Dave and Stephen ("The Colbert Report"), or between Stephen and sleep.

Among broadcasters, Leno still rules in the advertiser-targeted 18 to 49 demo, but that's the group that's also been flocking to cable, and NBC would like more of them back.

Fallon's more versatile than Leno, and his "Late Night" show is predictably unpredictable as well as funny. And, yeah, I'm more likely to see more of him now that he'll be on at 11:35.

I just don't know that "Tonight Show" viewers are all looking for unpredictable. What if the show's been No. 1 all these years because the monologues, the headlines, the Jaywalking, are the adult equivalent of a child's soothing bedtime ritual? Or what if his fans simply believe (as they're entitled to) that Jay's funnier than the other guys?

"Tonight," moving back to New York, now comes under Lorne Michaels, who's been Fallon's boss at both "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night." Michaels, 69, has been running "SNL" for decades. He recently told a reporter from New York Magazine, who asked if he had a "succession plan," that he could think of "five or six" candidates, but then added, "Milton Berle, George Burns and Bob Hope, they all made it to 100 or pretty close. So, you never know."

I think that's just the kind of open-ended deal Leno was hoping for, too.


Phone: 215-854-5950

Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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