Two score and two years ago, Johnny Carson handed over The Tonight Show to Jay Leno, preserving one of the longest running programs in the history of television. Now that 22 years has passed, Jay Leno has officially ended his run this past Thursday as host of The Tonight Show (with a slight recess while Conan O’Brien had the job), still atop the late night ratings. Jimmy Fallon will take the reins on February 17th and Seth Meyers will do the same for Late Night on February 24th.
What happened this week was akin to a planetary alignment in the world of late night at NBC, but not without some disruption from competitor Jimmy Kimmel or a single joke from Conan O’Brien.
Of course, a big celebration was planned, and Leno bookending his stint with his very first guest he had, Billy Crystal, along with a big song and dance number with a cornucopia of celebrities including Oprah, Jack Black, Chris Paul, Sheryl Crow, and more, was fitting. Make whatever conclusion you want, but it should be noted that the audience in attendance at this final taping is of an considerably older demographic.
Even more celebrities bid him adieu in a remote segment answering the question of what he should do next. Bill Maher’s response is particularly clever. Jimmy Fallon had a version of this, too, during his final episode of Late Night; Fallon’s was much more brief, but that may be due to Fallon simply moving down the hall in a week and a half.
In a nice gesture, even Arsenio Hall even Jay farewell on The Arsenio Hall Show this week.
Leno’s final minutes of The Tonight Show were dedicated to a heartfelt, tear-filled, valediction to his fans and union staff, followed by Garth Brooks playing his hit song “Friends in Low Places,” which I could read more into as a fitting selection given Leno’s broad appeal amongst the masses, responsible for making him number one in late for all these years, or could just see as a country star playing his most famous song.
The new host of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon, had an equally big ceremony in transitioning from Late Night to The Tonight Show appearing on both programs. Fallon did his signature Thank You Note to Leno while appearing on The Tonight Show, and did his own musical number farewell of “The Weight,” accompanied by The Muppets. If anything, the silly desk pieces and Fallon’s showmanship do harken back a little to Johnny Carson days, as seen in these clips.
You can see the genuine excitement Jimmy has (and that he’s also learned to rein in from years of breaking during sketches while at Saturday Night Live) in his very last monologue at Late Night. Interestingly enough, Leno’s last monologue featured plenty of topical jokes, while Fallon’s was more centered on his new gig, which was refreshing, pretty funny, and longer than most of his monologues (they usually run under 5 minutes).
Meanwhile, on ABC, Jimmy Kimmel Live pretty much dedicated an entire episode to one of his best and longest running gags, running out of time for Matt Damon. He had the entire cast of Monuments Men on the show, and had them all prank Damon, which was pretty spectacular (so much so that I picked it for The Most Intentionally Funny Video of The Day).
Many must have been eager to see what Conan O’Brien, whose short stint hosting The Tonight Show between Leno’s runs ended with some bitterness, had to say about Jay now that he is actually handing off the show. Conan actually only did one joke in his monologue regarding the matter, to uproarious applause. Other than that, Conan focused more on having the whole cast of The Walking Dead and a bunch of great zombie bits than a rivalry. I think, with the success of Team Coco and having built himself a bit of an empire at TBS, Conan is probably over the whole debacle by now.
Another Leno rival, David Letterman, hardly brought up Leno this week, save for one weird bit with the Mayor of Sochi, Russia mistaking Dave for Jay. I’m guessing that after 20 years hosting The Late Show , Dave too is also over the rivalry.
So, there was a lot of pomp and circumstance around 11PM this week in the realm of late night, especially on Thursday. What it will all ultimately mean is unclear, as non-traditional late night shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as well as @midnight, The Pete Holmes Show, and even Adult Swim are all changing the landscape of TV when kids are supposed to be sleeping. In fact, that’s probably the big generational change from late night during Carson’s Tonight Show and Fallon’s Tonight Show: Kids will be either staying up or can/will watch clips online the very next day.
I started off with a Gettysburg Address reference, so it’s only appropriate that I end with one. It is for us to be here ready for what will come in the next era of late night TV that from these talk show hosts past we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here are highly curious to see if Leno really is leaving or if all this was in vain, that broadcast and network television after 11 has been undergoing a new birth for quite some time now and that, as far as bits go, for the people and as laughed at by the people, Matt Damon shall never get to actually do a panel interview on Kimmel.