Friday night’s episode of The Tonight Show was Jay Leno’s last. For the past 17 years he has hosted the venerable institution of late night television, and just like that he is gone. Sort of. I remember when Johnny Carson left in 1992, there were weeks of special broadcasts and mournful guests stopping by to touch the sleeve before he disappeared from our lives. It was a huge, theatrical, gently somber affair. And I didn’t even watch the show. You could just feel it in the air. His departure was a shared cultural experience. Jay’s departure on Friday was subdued, boring, and completely anti-climactic. Again, I still don’t really watch the show, but you could just feel it. The pervasive unimportance of it all. Jay Leno’s mark on entertainment is a grease-stained slide. Huge damp fingers gripping tightly at something that’s inevitably being taken away from him. I’ve heard so many times that Jay Leno used to be one of the funniest and hardest working stand up comedians in the business that I feel like using Snopes to see if that’s even true. Based on what? I’ve never seen the slightest hint of this being true, so maybe everyone can stop saying it now. However funny or hard working he was in the distant past, he’s spent the past 17 years dismantling that myth with lazy jokes on a cheap looking set. One more year, and we would have been able to put his career in late night in the army and send it to Iraq. (Huh?).
He opened his final show with a traditional monologue. Now, the monologue as a comic structure is obviously antiquated and unnecessary. I mean, seriously, late night TV hosts? It’s 2009 and we’re still standing up at the top of the show and delivering hamfisted one-liners about current events like some borscht belt comedian flop-sweating his way through an evening at a Catskills country club? The monologue should retire. It’s time. Goodbye monologue. Enjoy Florida. But Jay Leno’s closing monologue was genuinely an incredible specimen. If the opening monologue as a rule is antiquated, Jay Leno’s final opening monologue (on the Tonight Show at least) was fucking pre-antiquity. Jokes about BILL CLINTON AND MONICA LEWINSKY? O.J. SIMPSON JOKES? Unbelievable. This guy is on TV? This guy gets to keep being on TV?
The interview with Conan was a gracious gesture, even if it was overshadowed by the fact that the dude refuses to leave politely. Sure, he’s handing the reins over to Conan, but not before he pulled the track out from underneath him. Nevertheless, Conan dominated the interaction. He was funny and clever and seemed completely relaxed. There was the briefest flicker of, say, Barack Obama being interviewed by George W. Bush, if that wasn’t so lame and hyperbolic to even suggest. But the event of a disastrous, false-folksy leader being confronted with his younger, smarter replacement only happens every so often, and so comparisons will be drawn. Conan, of course, premieres tonight. Welcome back, sir.
The show ended with what could have been a genuinely touching moment. Jay thanked his entire staff over the years, and then began to list off the many romantic relationships that had developed among staffers, leading to the many marriages that had developed among staffers, and then inevitably to the many babies that had developed among staffers. He mentioned the first Tonight Show with Jay Leno baby, Hanna, whose birth was mentioned on the air, and who is now 17 years old. Hanna came out with cookies. And then Jay Leno revealed all of the children who have been born to Tonight Show staffers over the past 17 years.
68 children. OK, that’s cute. Except what is the point? I mean, every company over time will have employees that have kids. Traditionally, these kids are honored by being invited to the company’s family picnic. There’s just something megalomaniacal about somehow TAKING CREDIT for other people’s children. Jay Leno is not responsible for these babies. 17 years is responsible for them. The ineluctable passage of time is responsible for them. Relax, technojayleno.
And just to cap it all off, as Jay Leno urges the audience to show Conan as much support as they have shown him over the years, which again, could be a really kind and charitable sentiment, he adds “see you in September.” Ugh. RELINQUISH, JAY LENO. BOW OUT LIKE A GENTLEMAN. As much as I’ve thought that the Jay Leno nightly 10PM program debuting this fall was a bad idea, and as much as I considered it a rude slap in the face to the other hosts, I felt mostly indifferent about it. I didn’t care about Jay Leno when he hosted the Tonight Show, so why should I care about Jay Leno now. But there was something about this final broadcast, with its stale humor and its constant winking towards not actually being a final broadcast that makes me really hope that Jay’s new show crashes in an epic, historic way. I want his show to be the first in television history to actually explode on the air. Fuck him.