Seventeen years ago, when Jay Leno took over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson, Internet use was largely limited to supergeeks. Cable stations and FOX had yet to make much of a dent in the big three networks’ ratings. TIVO, Netflix and Hulu weren’t even pipe dreams. And Arsenio Hall, at least initially, was the only serious late-night talk show competition.
When Leno signs off for the last time tonight from the vaunted spot behind the desk in "The Studio That Johnny Built", he will have outlasted the critics, high-quality competition – and a changing media landscape offering vast entertainment options – to leave as the ratings champ of his era.
Amid increasingly complicated times for the television industry, Leno succeeded by sticking to a simple formula: friendly chats with popular guests and topical jokes delivered in a genial, regular-guy manner.
In a way, playing the regular guy helped distinguish Leno from the pack. As beloved as he was, Carson was an enigma who rarely offered a glimpse into his inner self. You can say much the same for the guarded Letterman, the wonderfully cranky comic father of a generation of edgy outsider hosts who project varying degrees of personal likeability.
Leno will never be one of those guys – but that’s not what he set out to become when he pushed hard to beat Letterman for the NBC throne Carson commanded for 30 years.
While the critics largely favored Letterman’s 11:30 p.m. CBS show, the public voted with their remote controls: Five million people a night tuned in for Leno’s Jay Walking and Headlines bits, his jibes at four presidents, and even the Dancing Itos.
Leno is rarely accused of being cutting edge, but he was the first of the late-night comics to consistently mine the 1994-1995 O.J. Simpson circus for laughs. Whether in good taste or not, the gags helped the ratings. During this same period, Leno scored the Hugh Grant post-prostitution-arrest interview that cemented his lead over CBS’ Letterman in the 11:30 p.m. slot after a two-year battle.
Leno’s question to Grant on the 1995 show – “What the hell were you thinking?” – may be the words the host is best remembered for long after he delivers his last one-liner.
The ability to gild a crass situation with humor proved vintage Leno. He’s got a gift for making his guests and audience feel comfortable, even in uncomfortable times.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, a frequent guest, announced his run for California governor on Leno’s “Tonight Show.” Barack Obama became the first sitting president to appear on the program. Mel Gibson used his appearance Monday to confirm tabloid rumors that he impregnated his much younger girlfriend.
Leno’s final guest, in a classy move, will be Conan O’Brien, who on Monday will become the show’s fifth full-time host in 55 years.
There’s been some hoopla surrounding Leno’s last show, but nothing compared to Carson’s farewell, which really was a goodbye from the public arena. Leno, of course, is set to return to NBC in September with a prime-time show that already has some critics predicting doom.
But over the last 17 years, we’ve learned that it’s unwise to underestimate Jay Leno. He’s got a knack for getting the last laugh.
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.