After a couple of years of a see-saw battle with David Letterman, Jay Leno basically solidified his spot as the late-night ratings king in 1995 by asking a guest a simple six-word question, “What the hell were you thinking?”
The guest, of course, was then-popular movie heartthrob Hugh Grant, who had been caught with a prostitute (Divine Brown, trivia fans) and gave his first post-arrest interview to Leno.
So it was fitting, albeit in an odd way, that Leno kicked off his final week behind “The Tonight Show” desk with another headline-grabbing chat with a celebrity whose off-camera exploits are fodder for the tabloid media: Mel Gibson.
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Gibson, in the midst of a divorce from the mother of his seven children after 28 years of marriage, confirmed his 39-year-old musician girlfriend is pregnant.
"I guess I'm Octo-Mel," Gibson quipped on Monday’s show.
Leno, whose 17-year late-night run on NBC ends Friday, handled the interview much as he did the Grant conversation – with jokes, fueled by his regular-guy “What the hell were you thinking?” attitude. When Gibson said Oksana Grigorieva’s singing voice first attracted him to the beauty, Leno cracked, “Did you hear Susan Boyle?”
Gibson gamely took the needling, which was nothing that will keep him off Leno’s upcoming new 10 p.m. show.
For better or worse, Leno’s “Tonight Show” proved a place where celebrities and other public figures felt comfortable taking inevitable lumps or making news. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for governor on the program. Barack Obama became the first sitting president to sit in the not-so-hot seat across from Leno.
With the Grant interview, Leno not only distinguished himself in the ratings – he forever diverged from Letterman in terms of style.
Letterman’s most memorable moments, in both of his late-night shows on NBC and CBS, brim with the awkward and dangerous. He’s tangled with a high kicker (Crispin Glover), cursing one-named singers (Madonna and Cher), a wrestling-mad comic genius (Andy Kaufman) and a young actor apparently grappling with his own brand of bearded weird (Joaquin Phoenix).
Incoming “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien, and most of the late-night comedy set – Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel – are more Letterman’s children than Leno’s. Letterman may yet log more years in the 11:30 p.m. slot than anyone, save for his hero, Johnny Carson.
But Leno’s looking back at a little history of his own, as he takes his week-long victory lap, leaving as the ratings champ of his time. Entertainment Weekly, incidentally, named the Grant interview the host’s No. 1 moment, beating even the recent Obama sitdown.
Leno’s ability to make his guests – and his audience – comfortable even in the potentially awkward moments other comics thrive on may prove a deciding factor in whether he’s a prime-time boom or bust.
No word, though, on if or when Grant might be making a return appearance.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.