“We’re not really leaving,” Jay Leno told the studio audience on his last Tonight Show. And he was right. So how do you throw yourself a goodbye when you’re not going anywhere? TV has a history of lugubrious farewells for longtime personalities, and while Jay Leno may not have stuck around as long as Johnny Carson, at 17 years, he’s been there long enough to earn such a send-off.
The problem is, of course, that Jay is going to be back on NBC in three months, nightly, at 10 p.m. E.T. every weeknight. He’s like the high-school big man on campus who’s graduating, but will be enrolling in the local community college next fall.
Leno answered the dilemma with what was, in many ways, just another show. There was a little reminiscence for the ’90s days that defined his Tonight Show—he thanked Michael Jackson, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton for all the material, and joked about having found O.J.’s knife while cleaning out his office. He thanked his wife, Mavis. He played a Best of Jaywalking reel. (Who knew there were so many kinds of denim shirt?)
There were a few timely jabs at NBC: “I’m betting NBC will be around in three months.” And then he settled in for some jokes about Obama and the economy. (He saw DMX riding a BMX! Hi-yo!) He even introduced a new feature, White Trash Theater, a YouTube-quality video of a woman throwing a bottle at a man.
Business as usual. Which was fitting. One constant with Jay Leno is his dispassionate, businesslike attitude toward his job. That’s not to say he’s lackadaisical about his career—you don’t get to host Tonight, then get offered a nightly 10 p.m. slot, without being savvy—but he recognizes that his job is a job. To hear Jay tell it, he’s a guy who likes to get paid to tell jokes, and when a gig ends, it ends. It’s nothing personal. “People ask if I’m sad handing the show over,” he said. “No, honest, I’m very happy.”
And he seemed to mean it. Now in that may be the root of why so many critics like myself prefer David Letterman to Jay: you feel with Letterman that he is intense about what he does, that for all his ironic attitude it is personal for him. But this difference in attitude is also part of what’s likeable about Jay, even if he’s not your favorite comic. Things are what they are with him; there’s no public drama; nothing is worth getting overly worked up about.
His even keel is part of what’s made people comfortable with him. (Think about it: he got America to happily accept a show whose signature feature is interviews showing how dumb Americans are.) And it made for a likeably low-key goodbye from the Tonight host—no sobs, no maudlin displays, just a warm thank you for the good times.
To pass the torch, he brought on Conan O’Brien, who kicked off with a little riff on constantly being told he had “big shoes to fill.” Just once, he said, “I’d like to have little shoes to fill… I’d like to replace a local weatherman.” Conan actually sounded more nostalgic and valedictory than Jay, reminiscing about having been shanghaied onto the Tonight Show in 1993 after he was announced as David Letterman’s surprise replacement.
(It’s amazing, by the way, how much more composed and off-the-cuff funny Conan is than the nervous kid who went on stage then. Back then, people wondered if he was funny enough to replace Dave; today they wonder if he’s too funny to replace Jay.)
Leno only got sentimental toward the end, with a classy goodbye in which he introduced on stage all the children who were born to The Tonight Show over his 17 years. And his last guest was James Taylor—appropriately enough, also an entertainer who was too middle-of-the-road for many of the critics, but whose career never exactly suffered for it. He played “Sweet Baby James,” a personal request from Leno, who said it reminds him of when he hit the road for L.A. to start his showbiz career there. The particular line that stuck with him: “Ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go.”
We all know Jay Leno likes driving. And apparently he feels he has a few more miles in him.