The fourth host of The Tonight Show has officially retired from the job. Jay Leno, Johnny Carson’s successor, concluded his 17-year run on the oldest American late night program by offering a formulaic mixture of clip montages, big time guests, personal tributes and mostly stale monologue jokes. Not even close to being as respected as Carson (and with good reason), Leno’s final Tonight Show perfectly summed up his era on the show: forgettable and safe.
At one point during his typically overlong, uninspired monologue, he started riffing like Rodney Dangerfield, as a personal tribute. Then, he threw to a montage of the late, great comedian during his many appearances on Tonight. There were more laughs in that brief segment than Leno offered in the entire hour. When a dead man on videotape is far funnier than the live guy hosting the same show, you’re in sad shape. While it was nice to see Rodney get acknowledged for his brilliant stand-up work, it made Leno’s comedy look even weaker than it normally is. It was a mistake to run it.
I hope Howard Stern wasn’t watching this final show because he would’ve been livid over the Jaywalking clips. (Stern has long maintained that Leno and his writers stole the man-on-the-street-asking-stupid-people-basic-trivia-questions bit from his long running radio program. He wasn’t happy about how Stuttering John was lured away, either.) After showing some of the “best” moments from that segment over the years, Leno threw to a follow-up package where the dumbest of the dumb competed right on the show in a game called Battle Of The Jaywalking All-Stars. Quite frankly, it was routine stuff and not very funny.
Much better was Conan O’Brien, the only guest Leno interviewed. Looking relaxed and slipping easily into his Edward G. Robinson impression, he was as loose and funny as he’s ever been in recent years unlike the interesting clip that Leno showed of him making his first appearance on Tonight in early 1993 after receiving the Late Night gig. (What a difference 16 years makes!) He is definitely ready to take over the show June 1st. I wish him well.
After reflecting on a particular song he heard at some point during his long drive from hometown Boston to Hollywood in the early 1970s in order to pursue a career in comedy, Leno introduced James Taylor who played that very same track, Sweet Baby James. Low-key balladry is really not my bag and so the song, unfortunately, left me unmoved. Leno, however, was appreciative and hugged Taylor after the performance.
By the end, Leno thanked his wife, Mavis, who was in the audience and the current members of his staff, including longtime bandleader Kevin Eubanks and announcer Stuttering John Melendez. More interesting were the people he didn’t thank like original (and controversial) executive producer Helen Kushnick (who discovered the comedian, managed and championed him for years but later died of cancer in 1996, four years after being fired from NBC), Edd Hall who preceded Stuttering John in the announcer’s chair, and Branford Marsalis, his first bandleader who, upon leaving the show in 1995, went on to publicly criticize him.
Worst of all was the moment when he proclaimed with a straight face that he was a union guy. This from the man who went ahead and wrote his own monologue jokes during that needless writer’s strike not too long ago (a Writer’s Guild Of America no-no that led to absolutely no consequences) and only started paying his out-of-work staff after the press reported Letterman doing it first.
Although it was cute to see all the Tonight Show staff kids that were born and raised during his tenure (an astounding 68 in all), the fact that it was his response to the overasked “what’s your legacy?” question was a blatantly transparent attempt to avoid confronting the reality of his run. Aside from a few memorable guests and some genuinely funny moments, Letterman’s Late Show has always been better, hence all those Emmys.
It’s too bad Billy Crystal’s hilarious appearance on the previous Tonight Show didn’t happen on this one. It would’ve at least ended this critically unloved program with a bang. Instead, Leno’s lacklustreness was all too painfully on display. We’ve seen this once brilliantly acidic stand-up water his act down so severely that it’s hard to reconcile the bold, funny guy that used to crack up former friend Dave Letterman with the phony asskisser who refused to put fools like Ann Coulter and Mel Gibson in their place. “What the hell were you thinking?” remains the only tough question he ever asked a guest. That’s not much of a legacy.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 30, 2009