It looks like Jay Leno’s show on Feb. 6, 2014 is officially his last. After 22 years, NBC is getting some new blood to take over. As Jay put it, “It’s fun to be the old guy, to sit back and see where the next generation takes this great institution.”
(Watch the final show here).
Jay Leno’s final show as Tonight Show host reveals some interesting trends in both television and Tonight Show history:
First, NBC is calling his final show a ratings success with reports saying 14.6 million people tuned in to witness another passing of the torch for The Tonight Show. Those same reports that call it a ratings success also say that the final show was the highest-rated show for Jay since May of 1998 when Jerry Seinfeld came on as guest. Over 50 million people tuned in to see Johnny’s farewell, which ranks it in the top 5 of the most-watched television events in history.
Now with Jimmy Fallon taking over on Feb. 17, the show is also getting some other changes. For instance, it will once again be called The Tonight Show Starring….as opposed to The Tonight Show with…The “Starring” was dropped when Jay took over as Johnny’s successor in 1992. Another change is that the show will be returning to the city of its birth, New York City.
Second, Jay’s final goodbye was refreshing and impressive. His efforts to thank the audio people and the lighting folks for making him look and sound better than he actually does, as he said, was a humble gesture. His obvious emotional demeanor was a side of Jay we’ve never seen before.
Third, in his closing statements, Jay said The Tonight Show has “been a great institution for 60 years. I’m so glad I got to be a part of it.” This is the fourth time we’ve seen a host step down in that time. It all began in 1953 with host Steve Allen. This was the show that launched the format that has been re-done hundreds of times over with hundreds of other hosts. I believe the technical term for it is the-guy- behind-the-desk-with-a-mic-speaking-to-a-guest-on-the-couch format. For a brief period it took on a format more like The Today Show.
Jay was also not the first host to step down twice. Jack Paar literally walked off the set in 1960 after the network removed a portion of his program. He returned a month later not missing a beat with his first words “As I was saying before I was interrupted…” (unfortunately only the audio exists, but you can at least listen to the gist of it below:)
You cannot mention The Tonight Show without speaking of Johnny Carson, who will forever be remembered as the King of Late Night. In his final statement, Jay paid tribute to Johnny by saying
“In closing I want to quote Johnny Carson, who was the greatest guy to ever do this job. He said, ‘I bid you all a very heartfelt goodnight.’”
Virtually every talk show host, former guest of Johnny’s, and just about everyone in show business has said that Johnny was the greatest. Those who got invited to sit on the couch have credited that as the defining moment of their career, the moment their life changed forever. The biggest one that stands out is Drew Carey who compared the experience to getting saved at a Pentecostal church.:
“It was a real emotional experience. It’s real thing you can feel through your body…And the only thing I can compare it to is when I did The Tonight Show and Johnny called me over. It felt like that. I could feel my whole body change. I was floating the whole time. It felt like I was dreaming….It was like being saved in a church….that was a Friday…I was in show business the next day and my whole career began the Monday after I did The Tonight Show.”
Now with praise like that how could you think that Johnny was anything less than a Showbiz God or at least the best judge of whether a star had talent or not? I thought the feeling was mutual among every celebrity, that is until I came across this statement recently, much to my surprise, from Bill Maher:
“‘If you were on the show it changed your life!’ That’s not true! It didn’t change my life. I was on 30 times with Johnny…that’s a myth. I don’t know where that started…I mean there was a time way, way back…maybe when I was a kid when if you did The Tonight Show, a comedian was such a rare thing that it was sort of an event. But by the time I was doing it in the 80’s there was a new comedian every week. All it did was make you viable within show business to get some other job.”
I guess even the biggest stars will have critics.
At any rate, change is inevitable. “It really is time to go and hand it off to the next guy,” as Jay said. A new chapter begins in Tonight Show history with Jimmy Fallon as the new King of Late Night, a position that comes with big shoes to fill and yet at the same time leaves a lot of growing room for a new generation of Tonight Show viewers. But the question remains: When Johnny stepped down, he disappeared from the public eye until his death in 2005. Will Jay follow suit or will he be back?