Thursday night, for the second time, Jay Leno resigned his commission on “The Tonight Show,” which he had captained from 1992, with time off for Conan O’Brien.
A victim of time, of corporate self-interest and the phenomenon that is his successor, Jimmy Fallon, he left this time without a fight. He went gently out of that late night.
There are two ways, roughly speaking, to face the end of the world. You go crazy and forget the rules — or you do what you always have done, show up for work, cook the dinner, clean the house.
There was a moderate amount of crazy over the course of Leno’s last hour, but it was mostly business as usual, with old friends, talking about old times, on familiar ground, telling the same kinds of jokes about the expected subjects. Thursday night’s monologue covered Justin Bieber, the Olympics and, naturally, NBC.
In his 22 years as a talk show host — the prime-time series that linked his two “Tonight Show” stints meant he was never really out of that job — Leno has often been an object of derision. He has been attacked both for his passive-aggressive role in the network’s graceless, bungled O’Brien affair, and — the lower blow — as a comedian. His very success has been taken as a sign of his mediocrity.
Indeed, it is held by some in his trade that “The Tonight Show” itself was his downfall, that it made him rich but stole his soul. Leno was not deaf to the perception: “I used to be a ‘hip, bright comic.’ And then all of a sudden I was an awful, terrible person."
He was certainly not the most interesting of his peers, perhaps because he kept what was interesting out of the light. But let us, just for this moment, admit that mass appeal is no sin, nor pleasantness a crime. As (still) the most popular host in late night, Leno made many happy, and no one’s happiness is less real than another’s.
Billy Crystal, Leno’s first “Tonight Show” guest, was also his last, not counting show-closing singer Garth Brooks, whose solid bearing and mainstream appeal resemble Leno’s own. Once he hit the stage, Crystal, whose energy expands to whatever the space requires, effectively drove the show. He was funny and sweet and recalled the scuffling days when Leno, still living in Boston, provided a place for other comics to crash and kept a poster of Robert Klein over his bed.
He led a parade of famous faces in a parody of “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music.” There were Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, basketball star Chris Paul, Sheryl Crow (“I give a little wave/But not for Jay/I want to get on Dave”), Jim Parsons (a “Big Chin Theory” quip), Carol Burnett, giving her Tarzan yell, and Oprah Winfrey, arriving like Mozart’s Queen of the Night.
“If you were me,” she sang, “you’d buy them all a car.”
Gathered around his desk, they made a remarkable tableau, its randomness capturing the motley spirit of late-night TV.
Steve Carell, Miley Cyrus, Bob Costas, Charlie Sheen, Dana Carvey (doing Leno), Kevin Hart, Kevin Bacon, Matt Damon, Martha Stewart and Barack Obama appeared on tape to suggest what Leno might do now. Jimmy Fallon offered him the use of the show if he ever had some jokes he needed to tell. Some of it was funny, some of it creaked.
Finally, it was time to address the end head-on. Leno choked up thanking his audience, his producers, writers, lighting and sound crew, who helped him look and sound better and seem smarter than he really is.
And then he said, “The first year of this show, I lost my mom. Then I lost my dad. Then my brother died, and after that I was pretty much out of family.” So he made a family out of the people who made his show.
A key turned in a lock, and suddenly, somehow, it all made sense.