There have been 11 U.S. presidents since 1954 but only four hosts of “The Tonight Show.” The latest, Jay Leno, finished his 17-year run Friday night; his last guest was scheduled to be his successor, Conan O’Brien, himself coming off nearly 16 years as the host of the post-"Tonight” “Late Night.” Change comes glacially to late-night television: This is a day whose coming was foretold some five years ago, when O’Brien was promised the job, though its most notable upshot -- Leno’s intra-network move to NBC prime time -- was a late innovation.
“The Tonight Show” was an American institution when Leno took it over, defined and refined by Johnny Carson over three decades and the model for most of its own competition. The only network job to rival hosting it is anchoring the evening news. If Leno rarely approached his predecessor’s heights, if he did not advance or improve or in any significant way re-imagine the brand, he did not destroy it either. He was a caretaker-host and after a slow start against David Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS -- competition created by NBC’s decision to give “Tonight” to Leno instead of moving Letterman down from 12:30 -- he pulled ahead in the ratings and maintained the lead.
One’s allegiance to Leno or Letterman can be seen as a variation on the old Beatles versus Stones debate: the former safe and mainstream; the latter a little dangerous, working along the unpredictable margins. (It’s a glib dichotomy, but useful.) Where Leno sums up an older, more fulsome show-business tradition, Letterman is the godfather to the dry and ironic younger generations of comedy. Drew Barrymore would never have flashed Leno as she did Letterman; Madonna would not have tried her experiment in four-letter words on “The Tonight Show.” At the same time, it’s hard to imagine Letterman giving Roberto Benigni a ride on his shoulders, as Leno did, or getting into a food fight with Mel Gibson.
Lenoland is a friendly place: friendly for the viewers, friendly for the guests, friendly for the whole apparatus of celebrity self-promotion that such shows both depend on and exist to serve. Leno’s “Tonight” was organized as a rousing good time; every show opened with the host glad-handing a clamoring studio audience. (There are moments when you can almost see the applause sign flashing.) While Leno can be serious, and is not without opinions, he made his show a protected place; as a critic, he makes a good straight man. It was to Leno that President Obama went, not to Letterman, for a pulpit from which to sell his stimulus package.
Unlike many comedians, Leno is not the subject of his own comedy but rather a kind of stand-in for his audience. “What were you thinking?” he asked Hugh Grant, coming on the show after being arrested with a prostitute back in 1995. (Grant’s appearance helped establish the late-night talk show appearance stint as a way to snatch a career back from the jaws of scandal.) But the question “What were you thinking?” is the very essence of Leno’s comedy, which lives in the space between the way things are and the way they ought to be. His signature bits on “The Tonight Show” were both about that kind of failure: “Headlines” (unintentionally funny clippings from newspapers and magazines) and “Jaywalking” (people in the street demonstrate what they don’t know). They are sure to migrate with him when he moves into prime time.
“No one’s really bummed out or sad, because we’re going to be back in the fall,” Leno said Monday night. He leaves “The Tonight Show,” from which he has been in a sense forcibly retired, in a position of remarkable standing. In a move to keep him from going to ABC or Fox to compete head-to-head against O’Brien -- much as NBC earlier kept O’Brien in the fold by promising him “The Tonight Show” -- the network has given him nearly a quarter of its prime-time schedule. His new show will run weeknights at 10 nearly year-round.
Things are less secure in prime time than in late night, to be sure; there are no five-year contracts there. But the move doesn’t so much pull Leno from late night as, potentially, redefine when “late night” begins -- there may be an aging audience only too happy to get news and a talk show and still be in bed by 11:30. If he’s successful there, other networks may well follow suit.
O’Brien will then be left to attract younger viewers with his younger, stranger attitude -- though he’s 46 now, four years older than Leno was when he took over “The Tonight Show.” It remains to be seen whether this new arrangement might work to O’Brien’s disadvantage -- the two shows will be in competition for the guests and O’Brien’s will still be the show that comes on after Leno’s. But as opposed to Leno’s arrival at “The Tonight Show,” which ruined his friendship with Letterman, the current hand-over is being staged as a love fest.
That O’Brien was to be Leno’s final “Tonight Show” guest, crowning a week that focused on longtime friends, including Leno’s first guest, Billy Crystal; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had announced his candidacy on the show and whom Leno has imitated broadly and often; and Gibson, whose ongoing divorce and pregnant girlfriend gave Leno a last Hugh Grant moment: “Can I ask you, what happened?”
Perhaps it is just the performer’s fear that every gig is potentially the last, but Leno -- who didn’t take a sick day from his show until this April and who, to the displeasure of the Writers Guild of America, wrote his own monologues when “The Tonight Show” returned to the air during last year’s writers strike -- is not about to relax. He’ll be onstage tonight in Atlantic City, N.J., with June dates in Las Vegas and Rancho Mirage. And there is a new show to make.