Last Friday, I witnessed a piece of TV history–the last “Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” as it ended its 17-year run with a highly anticipated and well-marketed finale.
I grew up about a mile from the set of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” and remember with fondness his farewell week and especially his last show. I watched Johnny’s finale over and over on video. I watched Jay’s finale with my daughter (who has seen him live) on TiVO.
But whereas Johnny’s last show was the end of an era, Jay’s was the end of a contract. Johnny was the King of Late Night Television; Jay has merely been the prince ever since winning the ratings lead from David Letterman several years ago and never giving it up. Johnny was family; Jay was good entertainment. Johnny was a genius; Jay was competent. Johnny was the master; Jay was competent. Johnny was sublime; Jay had a great staff.
And yet, I had the hardest time accepting that Jay Leno was done with his run. It seemed premature. It seemed hasty. It seemed, well, undone. Jay is still young and fresh (by late night standards) and there’s been a sense that he’s just settling into a groove that would someday launch him beyond the ratings game and into our families in that special way that only the late-night-goodbye-guy can.
It was four years ago that NBC Television announced that Jay would relinquish his perch and turn over “The Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien. It was the most lengthy and anticipated piece of succession planning since Princess Diana had her boys. And yet, it seemed like it was here all too soon.
And then the final monologue came. “When I started this show,” he opened in his monologue, “I had dark hair and the President was white.” And he was off and running.
Jay’s intro–complete with bits from older shows, a piece with an even younger Conan, and Jaywalking shots with a Leno-with-darker-hair–was excellent. His Jaywalking pieces were funny. His introduction and interview with Conan O’Brien was as warm as it was promotional. Then came James Taylor, who made special arrangements to arrive for the closing night musical segment to honor Jay’s request to sing the song that inspired him on a lonely night long ago.
Then the real inspiration came. Johnny had Bette Midler. Jay had, well….kids. That’s right, kids! Jay Leno introduced a girl who was born during the first season who was now 17. Then he rolled back the curtain to introduce a stageful of kids who’ve been born to staff members during the show’s run. He could barely control his quivering lip and a tear. And, on the last night of a 17-year run, the authentic and transparent Jay Leno shone as a family man who’s loved the small turnover and large commitment of his staff who had produced the kids as well as the years’ worth of wonderful shows.
“Someday when these kids are parents and their kids ask ‘where did you meet,” Leno asked. “They’ll be able to say ‘we met on stage at ‘The Tonight Show.’” He was ready to cry, and deferred to the credits and applause.
Jay Leno brought comedy and levity for 17 years as Johnny Carson’s successor. I felt like he was just finding his stride. There’s a family feel about the person who helps you fall asleep at night with a healthier and lighter perspective on the day’s events and the hope for tomorrow.
But the good news is that he has a show starting in the Fall at 10 p.m. I hope it’s good, because he’s not done yet. I hope it’s good, because I’ll be able to get to bed earlier. And I hope it’s good, because he’s just now moving beyond the realm of entertainment into the realm of family. He’s just now overcoming the ghost of Johnny and becoming a regular member of the crowd, seated at the big kids’ table and ready for adult conversation. It’s not time to go away.
Yes, it was the end of a contract. But it wasn’t the end of an era. See you in the Fall, Jay.