Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Leno logs his last 'Tonight'

Less about legacy, more about successor.

Jay Leno said goodbye to

The Tonight Show

on Friday night in pedestrian fashion. (Jay Walking, indeed.) Perhaps that was fitting for the most workmanlike host ever to sit behind the desk at this TV institution.

It seemed like just another day at the office for the 59-year-old comic, who ended his 17-year tenure with a pro forma performance, lacking in pizzazz and retrospection.

Shying away from classic clips may have been a wise move since his reel of "The Best of Comedy Bits & Pieces" the preceding night had seemed awfully thin even at two minutes. The Dancing Itos haven't aged well.

Leno didn't save any zingers for his last Tonight Show monologue, either. "When I started this show," he began, "my hair was black and the president was white." He went on to reference comic-book characters Archie and Veronica. That would have sounded stale coming out of Jack Paar's mouth.

It wasn't much of a farewell party. Maybe Leno didn't feel the need to make a big statement. It's not as if he's retiring; he's just changing shifts. His new gig, weeknights at 10, begins on NBC in September.

As Billy Crystal sang to the tune of The Jeffersons theme song on the penultimate show, "Moving on down, down to prime time."

In the end, Leno's final program was less about his legacy and more about handing over the reins to his replacement (and only couch guest for the last show), Conan O'Brien.

He effusively praised the rangy redhead, who takes over tomorrow night. "You are the only choice," Leno said. "You are the perfect choice."

One couldn't help but feel that this generous passing of the late-night crown was a way of redressing an old wound for Leno, who was surely stung by the lack of endorsement (or even acknowledgment) from his predecessor, Johnny Carson.

As long as he stewarded The Tonight Show franchise, Leno was never able to escape Carson's shadow. He wasn't able to re-create Johnny's impish and spontaneous sense of fun. And he never duplicated Carson's intimate connection with his audience.

Oh, Jay worked hard, but always left the impression that he was punching the comedy clock.

After his final musical guest, James Taylor, delivered a lovely version of "Sweet Baby James," Leno launched into a litany of thanks to his staff, naming names at length. It was like an indulgent acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, only bandleader Kevin Eubanks, sporting a Philadelphia Eagles cap, didn't cut him off midphrase.

Carson, by contrast, in his valediction thanked only Ed McMahon, Doc Severinsen, and his viewers, and he had held the chair for 30 years.

Leno's final act - which earlier in the show he had described as "very special" and "the greatest thing we've ever done" - was to bring out the 68 kids who have been born to his staffers during his Tonight Show run.

Some curtain call.

At least you never had to worry about your TiVo settings with Leno at the helm. Even his final show ended right on time. What a pro.