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A sense of loss as NBC's 'Tonight Show' ends its Leno and Burbank eras

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The sign advertising his show still looms over the NBC parking lot, and for a few more days throngs of fans will crowd the studio gates in Burbank before tapings. But Jay Leno says he's ready to leave — and this time, he says he really means it.

After more than 40 years, "The Tonight Show" is leaving Southern California and heading back to New York, with the 63-year-old Leno, who first became host in 1992, handing off the show to Jimmy Fallon, just 39.

Four years have passed since NBC botched a similar passing of the torch to Conan O'Brien. This time it's the passing of an era, and not just for Leno, one of the most polarizing figures in show business. It's also a sobering inflection point for the TV industry and Los Angeles generally, both of which are struggling to adapt to economic and technological forces that are threatening a cultural primacy that looked assured back in 1972, when Johnny Carson transplanted "Tonight" to what he jokingly called "beautiful downtown Burbank."

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"I'm old enough to remember when I was in New York and I was a kid, it was, 'Oh my God, the "Tonight Show's" leaving New York and going to Los Angeles,'" Leno recalled, sitting in the green room next to his studio. "It seemed like the most glamorous thing in the world."

Things change. New York — a safer, more prosperous city than it was in the 1970s — has solidified its standing as the nation's media capital, with most of the major news and talk shows originating there.

"New York is the bustling city and blah, blah, blah," Leno said. "All the excitement's there, all the movie studios, they start their big campaigns in New York. So now it's going back."

Where once "Tonight" was part of a vibrant complex that was home to "Hollywood Squares," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" and other shows, the studios will after this week become another symbol of the runaway production that has seen more than $3 billion in film and TV crew wages slip away from Southern California over the last decade. The "Tonight Show" move will cost more than 150 local jobs alone.

Leno understands that the loss of "Tonight" is a shock to the local system. "That's kind of sad to see happen," he said.

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The sense of loss is palpable. " 'The Tonight Show' put Burbank on the map," said Burbank Mayor Emily Gabel-Luddy. "We stole the 'Tonight Show' from New York originally, and I guess they're stealing it back."

"The real impact is the loss of tradition," she said, "and that's what our community is feeling. We see Jay Leno around town, he participates in our car shows, he drives around our streets and he's been part of the community ever since he's been here doing the 'Tonight Show.' People really love that."

But it's more than a New York vs. Hollywood dynamic, many believe. Leno and his brand of gentle, easily digestible comedy is no longer the kind of fare that captivates the mainstream — if "the mainstream" still exists at all.

"Leno proved that comedy could be clean and square, and still be funny," said Marty Kaplan, a media professor at USC. "That kind of non-edgy humor once won a mass audience, but now it's just another niche."

Indeed, viewers these days must pick their way through more than 20 late-night talk shows on broadcast and cable, including O'Brien's TBS show, Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" and E!'s "Chelsea Lately."

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"Tonight" has commanded just under 4 million nightly viewers this season, compared with 2.9 million for CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" and 2.6 million for ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," according to Nielsen. But "Tonight's" audience has been declining for years amid all the competition, following a now-familiar pattern seen by nearly every TV show. Once a cash cow for NBC, "Tonight" was forced to lay off about 20 staffers in 2012, and Leno took a 10% pay cut.

None of this was foreseeable 22 years ago, when Leno took over "Tonight" from Carson, who is still considered the gold standard of late-night talk show hosts nearly a decade after his death.

The backstage battle over who would succeed the retiring Carson was so fierce that it was chronicled in a bestselling book, "The Late Shift," which revealed how Leno hid in a closet so he could secretly listen to a conference call of executives discussing his future. The episode sealed the comic's image as a striver of considerable talent but perhaps even larger ambition.

Leno's first months as host were a disaster. The comic's then-manager and executive producer, Helen Kushnick, sent Hollywood into an uproar by seeking to blackball celebrities who appeared on other talk shows. David Letterman, Leno's rival for the "Tonight" desk, left NBC to start a competing program on CBS in mid-1993 that was soon beating "Tonight" in the ratings. On-camera, Leno seemed ill-at-ease, off his game.

"It was a shaky start," acknowledged Warren Littlefield, who was the NBC Entertainment president who greenlighted Leno's takeover of "Tonight."

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But Leno, who grew up in the Boston area raised by Italian and Scottish immigrant parents, persisted. Kushnick was booted and the producers eventually scrapped the old Carson set and built a new one that allowed audience members to crowd the stage and high-five Leno at the opening, underscoring Leno's roots as a nightclub comic. A 1995 sit-down with British star Hugh Grant, then disgraced in a sex scandal, signaled the start of a ratings turnaround that sent "Tonight" to No. 1.

"The show was kind of rebuilt around Jay. And he flourished in it," Littlefield said. "He was flexible; he adjusted."

Maybe too flexible, according to some critics. As a young comic, Leno was known for his "What's my beef?" comic rants, but detractors say he relaxed into dumbed-down comedy for the masses on "Tonight." His best-known bit is "Jaywalking," which consists of an amused Leno quizzing clueless passersby on basic knowledge. Leno doesn't deny adjusting his humor for a big audience.

"You're dealing with just a broad cross-section of America," said Leno, whose worth has been estimated at $350 million by CelebrityNetWorth.com. "You're dealing with people who work really hard and they just wanna have a laugh before they go to bed.

"So is it not as cutting edge? Sure, probably. I'd cop to that."

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Bill Zehme, who co-authored Leno's bestseller "Leading With My Chin," compares Leno to Bob Hope, another NBC funnyman forever tied to Burbank (the airport is named after Hope, who lived in nearby Toluca Lake). "Like Hope, Leno seems to fill a nationalistic need as America's Comedian," Zehme said.

But unlike Hope, Leno has sometimes been cast as a villain. In 2010, when he bombed with a 10 p.m. talk show, NBC returned him to "Tonight" amid intense pressure from local affiliates. The tortured maneuvers displaced O'Brien, who eventually quit. Leno was painted as a back-stabbing climber, with much of the toughest criticism coming from fellow comics and hosts, such as Letterman and Kimmel. "Shame on Jay Leno," Rosie O'Donnell told reporters.

Today, Leno laughs off those kinds of attacks.

"My favorite was, 'Jay Leno went back to NBC and demanded his show back,'" Leno said. "If I had that power, I wouldn't have been fired in the first place."

Many of his fans think it's still too soon for him to leave. Lining up outside the doors to Studio 11 in Burbank one day earlier this week were hundreds of Leno loyalists, mostly middle-aged and nearly all white, aiming for one last in-person peek of him on "Tonight." 

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"It is sad to see him go," said Megan Powers, 42, of San Diego. "It's like the end of an era.... There's a comfort about him. I feel about him like I think my parents did with Johnny Carson. He's always been there, like an uncle I like to hang out with."

"What's great about Jay Leno is that he's just a common, everyday guy that everyone can relate to," said Tom Nadal, 54, of Rancho Santa Margarita. "He's been fired twice, basically, and he's still No. 1 in the ratings."

Leno's own position on his "Tonight" exit can be hard to parse. "This feels about time," he said, even though his recent monologues have been studded with jokes about being pushed out and digs at NBC. Noting that Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr performed together at the Grammys, Leno arched his eyebrow and joked this past week: "So, I guess some people still enjoy the older entertainers." His studio audience whooped and applauded. On an earlier show, he quipped that the Olympics security situation in Russia was so dangerous that NBC wanted to send him there.

The next day after his "Tonight" stint ends, he'll be on the road, doing stand-up dates in Florida. But he's cagey about another TV show. Certainly his lifestyle would allow it: He and his longtime wife, Mavis, who live in Beverly Hills, have no children, and Leno's sole hobby is his collection of more than 200 cars and motorcycles, some of which he stows in a massive garage near the Burbank airport.

"You can't do this again," he said of the late-night arena. "I'm very flattered. There are a lot of offers. Everyone wants you basically to do 'The Tonight Show Lite.' I don't know. It'd be fun to do something."

But on one point there was no hesitation. Asked if it was worth it coming back to "Tonight" four years ago, only to be axed again, Leno replied immediately: "Of course.

"I've had a great time," he said. "It's the greatest job in the world."

scott.collins@latimes.com

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