I can’t tell you how well Jay Leno has handled his tenure as desk jockey for “The Tonight Show” because I’ve steadfastly (with occasional lapses) avoided turning in to NBC at 11:30 p.m. since he took over the spot.
Initially, I didn’t do this out of some nostalgia for Johnny Carson, deference to David Letterman, or a particularly early bed time. I did it because, on the times I sampled early in his reign, Leno simply wasn’t all that funny, offered zero surprises, and was a pretty lousy interviewer.
When Conan O’Brien took over “The Tonight Show” (as per agreement with Leno), I appreciated the creativity upgrade but understood completely why a Leno-liking demographic turned away. What I didn’t understand was why NBC execs seemed surprised and why they put O’Brien in the spot without the commitment to growing the audience for this admittedly acquired taste.
When Leno was put back into the slot, he was soon surrounded by even more reasons not to watch “The Tonight Show.” Late night was livened up, with smart fun offered by Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, and particularly Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. Dare I say that Carson himself would have trouble if he had such competition instead of the likes of Alan Thicke. (Anyone remember “Thicke of the Night”? Anyone?)
As these shows grew, Leno seemed lamer and lamer and lamer.
Until the wise move was made to replace him with Jimmy Fallon, who started awkwardly on his own show but quickly proved himself to be engaging, funny, and savvy about his choice of musical guests. Bonus points for house band The Roots. Even more bonus points for his Indianapolis Super Bowl week shows.
And now, while writing this, a commercial airs for the final Leno “Tonight Show” episode.
It includes someone saying that Leno is the best that’s ever done it.