Why Does Jay Leno's Departure From 'The Tonight Show' Feel Like A Non-Event?

Tomorrow night will bring with it the final installment of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” NBC’s late-night hours will then be filled with news reports and coverage of the Winter Olympic Games until February 17, when “Tonight” becomes something else entirely with new host Jimmy Fallon and a return to New York City after being telecast from Burbank for more than 40 years. 

It’s not the end of “Tonight” -- even if it is the end of the show as we currently know it. But it’s the end of late-night dominance by Jay Leno, who in many of the interviews he has done in recent days about his imminent departure from “Tonight” has made clear he has no interest in returning to the post-prime-time arena on any other network or media service.



The excitement about Fallon moving to “Tonight” (and Seth Meyers moving into the “Late Night” franchise) hasn’t fully kicked in, perhaps because NBC is all about the Olympics these days. It might have been more of an event had Leno left on a Friday and Fallon begun on a Monday, rather than having a prolonged gap in between. Indeed, Fallon’s appearance on “Tonight” on Monday for an informal passing of the baton resulted in the show’s highest overnight rating and its strongest local market rating for any night of the week since March 2010. That’s great promotion for Fallon’s move, but one might say it comes two weeks too early.

I’m a big fan of Fallon’s, and I’m glad I will no longer have to stay up too late to see what he’s up to every night. I’m sure he will bring the same outsize creative energy and infectious enthusiasm to “Tonight” that he so winningly developed on “Late Night."

But I can’t help but wonder why I’m not more wistful (if that’s the right word) about the end of Leno’s run as the host of “Tonight.” After all, he’s been there for 22 years (with the exception of seven very unfortunate months when he hosted NBC’s prime-time fiasco “The Jay Leno Show” in late 2009 and early 2010). That’s only eight years shy of the legendary Johnny Carson’s historic run. And before that he was Carson’s permanent guest host for many years. Furthermore, for most of Leno’s time on “Tonight” it has remained the No. 1 late night show.

I was moved by Carson’s departure, as were millions of Americans who had either enjoyed him during much of their adulthood or, like many of us, grown up watching him. I was even caught up in David Letterman’s move from NBC to CBS is 1993. But Leno’s exit doesn’t seem to be having any effect on me at all -- although it does have me thinking about something I never gave much thought to: Why was the show titled “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”? When Carson was host it was known as “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” With Fallon as host it will be named “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Why didn’t Leno rate a “starring” rather than a “with”?

Perhaps the fact that I don’t seem to care very much about Leno’s departure has something to do with the fact that he left once before, when he was rather rudely bounced from “Tonight” in 2009 (having famously been given five years notice) to make room for Conan O’Brien, who flopped in that gig, necessitating Leno’s swift return. Maybe it’s because I’m excited about the “Tonight Show” returning to New York City. Maybe I’m just ready to enjoy the further evolution of Jimmy Fallon. 

None of that explains why I seem not to have an emotional connection of any kind to Leno or to the show he has fashioned for more than 20 years. Perhaps it’s just a function of living in today’s ever-expanding media landscape, when the end of any ongoing franchise, no matter how beloved or how faithfully viewed, is quickly forgotten as dozens of alternatives on multiple platforms instantly vie for one’s time and attention. I’ll admit that, unlike when I watched Carson, I was usually multitasking while watching Leno.

I’m already on the record with my beliefs that it would be foolish of NBC to let Leno leave the network altogether and that he would make a grand host for a one-hour, once-a-week prime-time talk and comedy show -- one that would have to be much more thoughtfully designed and executed than “The Jay Leno Show.” The model NBC ought to keep in mind is the BBC’s “The Graham Norton Show,” seen here on BBC America. I also believe that if NBC doesn’t try something like that with Leno that CBS or ABC or a cable network should.

4 comments about "Why Does Jay Leno's Departure From 'The Tonight Show' Feel Like A Non-Event?".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. KEN kisselman from potentialKEN, February 5, 2014 at 3:57 p.m.

    I think that the notion that viewers want a network to provide them with a nightcap to end their appointment TV before turning in (or signing off) for the night is a relic of a 5 channel television universe. Jay admirably presided over the death of an antiquated programming model. This is even more obvious to me when I listen to my parents lament how the Tonight Show is 'trying to go after a younger audience' when in reality the are simply resetting around the shifting demographic of who is currently middle-aged. Jay is good at what he does but entertainment has moved on. Why watch some guy read you funny misprinted ads when social media is littered with grassroots examples of that trope? Why watch 'funny' reworked video clips when Steward and Colbert show even funnier real clips? Why watch celebrities deliver rehearsed anecdotes when you can follow them on social media or see dozens of other TV shows run their variation on that format while they simultaneously cook or craft or do funny stunts or simply verbally joust with a panel of women in daytime to earn the opportunity to plug their latest project. Johnny was America's late night grandpa who provided funny commentary on what was going on in a world where Walter Cronkite was the authoritative voice of news for a one size fits most viewing audience. Jay presided over that chairpersonship as authority eroded and audiences fragmented. His debut even ushered in the era of late night competition for a segmented audience (with Letterman etc.). The model has changed. Clearly NBC believes that the future involves maintaining a SNL talent pool where key players graduate to movies and sitcoms while some rise through the ranks to preside over the news desk till they graduate to hosting the daily programming nightcap. Falon's current show is a nice blend of late night tropes with his multifaceted SNL-style talent. Whereas Jay seems to stumble through note cards making jokes about what was in online news days or weeks prior, Jimmy is down and dirty making new creative entertainment with his guests for an audience that increasingly demands authenticity as a price of relevance. Instead of 'passing the baton' it's an opportunity to consider what the late night format should be about as broadcast TV continues to evolve last centuries assumptions in order to adapt to a multichannel and multimedium marketplace. Jay is the new Bob Hope and should be treated with the reverence accorded that status much the way America loves Betty White. I agree that he should be the go to gold standard for TV specials and I think that taking him off of the air completely misses an opportunity to niche program to older middle America. I just think that baseline middle America has moved on and it is past time for a fresh approach to keep late night programming relevant.

  2. Michael Kaplan from Blue Sky Creative, February 5, 2014 at 7:59 p.m.

    Ken - Brilliant analysis, although your fondness and appreciation for Jay is a bit more than my own.

    A weekly show in prime time? Didn't they try that? Didn't that fail terribly. Maybe he could hosting the Oscars, although he doesn't have the comic hosts of recent award show hosts (Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, or Tina & Amy)

    As for Ed's question about the show names, as one of those responsible for the marketing of Jay's start on the Tonight Show back in the early '90s, the change had everything to do with NBC making it clear it was THEIR show, as opposed to the Carson era. Changing "starring" to "with" was a deliberate "F### You" to Leno and his people, and it wouldn't be the last.

  3. Jeff Pugel from Essex Digital Platform, February 5, 2014 at 11:21 p.m. it because he already left once before?

  4. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications, February 6, 2014 at 6:35 a.m.

    We have seen this movie before and know how it will end, however, just counting this time the months for the return...

Next story loading loading..