Most of the coverage has been about Leno taking with him a commanding ratings lead in late-night, not only among total viewers but also in the 18-49 age bracket advertisers covet. And in the days leading up to his exit, The Reporters Who Cover Television dusted off think pieces about Leno leaving the show in the wake of a demographic shift affecting millions of baby boomers who are being pushed aside to make way for a younger generation with different sensibilities. In many ways, Leno’s handoff to Fallon does mirror the first time the press wrote those think pieces, when NBC replaced Leno with his lead-out, Conan O’Brien in 2009 – a plan that famously flamed out over seven months.
But the bigger news here is the incredible gift Leno’s been given: a handoff do-over.
It’s a loaded gift for Leno. He owes much of his ratings success, and longevity, to the fact that he’s much adored in flyover country — Leno won last month’s 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll asking which late-night host was most likely to make you laugh, handily beating his latest replacement Fallon, his first replacement O’Brien, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson. But the media doesn’t like Leno so much, having pegged him decades ago as the closet-hiding, eavesdropper who backstabbed their late-night crushes Letterman and, later, O’Brien.
In what might be the most carefully controlled exit in recent history, Leno has, to date given just one television interview leading up to his final day – to 60 Minutes. Smart move. He had given an interview to 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft 22 years ago when he was getting ready to replace Johnny Carson as Tonight’s new permanent host; Kroft’s a few years older than Jay, 60 Minutes is the country’s most watched newsmagazine, it skews older — and it knows what it’s like to be on the outs with the press, having recently taken its share of drubbing in the media of late.
Leno also has given just one print interview – though he’s given it a few times. The quotes do not vary from one interview to the next, and all are from the School of Carefully Controlled Responses: “This is the right time to leave,” “a 63 year-old guy reading Miley Cyrus tweets is a little creepy,” and not wanting to next do “Tonight Show Lite.”
Leno’s previous departure from Tonight, back in 2009, totally got away from him. His Take The High Road playbook back then was very much like the one he’s using now, including the “You were the only choice, you were the perfect choice” line he delivered to Conan when his successor was his guest on the show right before taking it over, which closely parallels the “most deserving person” line he’s been using about Fallon the past couple weeks. Also sounding eerily familiar: “I understand this” and “I probably would have stayed if NBC didn’t have an extremely qualified young guy ready to jump in” quotes.
If Leno’s treading very cautiously, it’s because, once again, he’s being compelled to turn over the franchise to someone far more popular with the media than he. Nobody was more surprised than Leno when, after being told in 2004 he would be yanked from the show in ’09 because Conan’s reps were negotiating for their guy to take over the show then as a condition of not going to another network, he somehow wound up the Snidely Whiplash of that drama. (“What’s more show-bizzy than that? You’re fired four years from now. Get out – in four years!” Leno told Kroft on that recent 60 Minutes interview, in his trademark Complain Via Gag style. It was the closest Kroft in the broadcast got to penetrating the Leno wall).
Conan’s camp — which included much of the press — blamed/credited Leno for negotiating a deal to headline a 10 PM strip, which tanked, damaging late local newscast numbers and Conan’s ratings, which caused local station execs to threaten mutiny. Team Coco blamed Leno and his reported play-or-pay deal for NBC’s decision to dig their way out of their Leno hole by putting Leno back at 11:35 PM and bumping Conan’s Tonight Show to midnight. And, so, the great takeaway of that wild chapter in Tonight Show history became Conan’s final night as host, in which he told the nation the gig, “has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me. And I just want to say to these kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life — unless Jay Leno wants it too.”
But Leno had been typecast for the media about 17 years earlier when, at age 42, he beat out Late Night host Letterman to land the Tonight Show gig upon Carson’s retirement, after serving as Carson’s official substitute host. In that melodrama, recorded in the book and subsequent HBO movie The Late Shift, Leno was indelibly drawn as the schemer who hid in a closet to eavesdrop on a corporate conference call as NBC suits mulled whether to abandon Leno, in favor of Letterman, when things got sticky.
We all know about how a 1995 interview on Tonight with Hugh Grant — booked to promote Grant’s new movie Nine Months but coincidentally the same week he got arrested for misdemeanor lewd conduct in a public place with a hooker — is credited with turning ratings around for Leno, and how he’s hung on to his No. 1 status ever since.
Now Leno has one more stab at getting re-cast as The Good Guy. He is handing over to Fallon, and exec producer Lorne Michaels, a franchise that never fully recovered from the Conan catastrophe ratings-wise, that now competes in an ultra-crowded market, that averages just under 4 million viewers, that within the past couple years shed 20 jobs and 10% of its host’s salary — after years of being thought of as the “ATM for NBC,” as former NBC exec Tom Nunan described it to the LA Times a couple years ago.
So far, Leno has deftly avoided being somehow blamed for the decision to move the show back to New York — one more program that’s leaving Southern California — and about 160 people losing their jobs. Leno did skate on thin ice this week when Fallon was a guest on his show and naively joked to the house band, “Hey, what are you guys up to in two weeks?” “Oh, they’ll be looking for work,” Leno assured Fallon, jumping on Fallon’s throw-away question/blunder. “They’re actually washing cars in my garage.”
But mostly, Leno has been very careful not to let his sharp edges show as he slowly heads toward the door. Kroft tried to get him to bare those edges in that 60 Minutes interview, but, when probed, Leno deflected with a “Show business pays you a lot of money because eventually you’re gonna get screwed” laugh line.
Sadly, though not surprisingly, the nearly 15 million viewers who tuned in learned almost nothing new about Leno. But he’s a guy who survived as host of the biggest brand in late night for more than two decades (and more than 4,600 episodes, putting him ahead of even Carson), while also acquiring and restoring one of the best classic car and motorcycle collections in the country, writing car reviews for The Sunday Times of London, producing the web series Jay Leno’s Garage, and doing about 150 stand-up gigs a year. So it was fun to watch a frustrated Kroft attempt to dismiss Leno with an acid remark about how, in the 22 years since he’d last interviewed him, “there’s been no emotional growth.”
Speaking to Kroft on 60 Minutes, Leno acknowledged he would have preferred to have remained on The Tonight Show for several more years but that Fallon is the “most deserving person” to replace him. He added that he’s not insulted by NBC is dumping him against because it’s for such “an extremely qualified young guy, ready to jump in. “Talented people will only wait so long before they get other opportunities,” Leno said.
“You said all of the same things, exactly, about Conan,” Kroft replied, baiting him.
“Did I say the same things?” Leno responded. “Yeah, prob — well, maybe, I did, yeah. Well, we’ll see what happens.”