Jay Leno went on 60 Minutes Sunday night, kicking off his Farewell to The Tonight Show (This Time I Mean It) Tour of exit interviews. He said nice things about successor Jimmy Fallon (“extremely qualified”) and appeared to embrace the logic behind the Peacock’s decision to make a change while Tonight is still on top (“Talented people will only wait so long before”). But for every declaration of acceptance, Leno served up a darker, passive-aggressive whiff of annoyance with the situation: “It’s always nice to keep working,” he told Kroft. “It was not my decision” to leave, he added later. And then came the moment when Kroft reminded Leno that he had said plenty of nice things about Conan O’Brien five years ago. Leno’s reply was almost Urkel-like: “Did I say the same things?” he asked. “Well, maybe I did, yeah. Well, we’ll see what happens.” It was hard not to conclude that, just as in 2009, Leno still thinks he is being unfairly and prematurely pushed out by the Peacock. He’s trying to hide this fact with banalities about how this time is “different,” but he’s not succeeding. And this is a shame: Leno may not be critically loved, but he ended up being a really popular and really good host of The Tonight Show. And even if, for argument’s sake, you accept that he’s right to feel aggrieved, his inability to really and truly let go — or at least his inability to convincingly lie about it — tarnishes that legacy. It makes him look small. Leno should be proud of what he’s accomplished and take a cue from his (first) predecessor, Johnny Carson: (Jay)-walk away, and don’t look back.
First, it’s important to explain why the man with the golden jaw can’t be taken at his word when he kvells about Fallon and his acceptance of passing the baton. As Kroft noted, but apparently didn’t feel the need to go into at length, Leno’s past pronouncements regarding giving up Tonight are damning. Of particular note: Leno’s monologue on the day back in 2004 when NBC first announced its plans to replace him with O’Brien. Noting the rumors that ABC and other networks were looking to steal O’Brien away, Leno told his audience then:
They came to me and they said, “We don’t want to lose Conan O’Brien.” And I said, “Okay, what does that mean?” And they said, “We think Conan would be a good replacement” – as I do – Conan is a gentleman, funny, the hottest late-night guy out there – and I said, “You know something – I don’t want to see Conan go anywhere else.” I’ll be 59 years old…5 years from now, that’s 12,000 shows, I’m not going anywhere tomorrow. And I said, “You know, there’s really only one person who could have done this into his 60s, and that’s Johnny Carson. And I think it’s fair to say, I’m no Johnny Carson.”… Because you know, you can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher, or you can get out when you’re still, you know, when you’re still doing good…. This show is like a dynasty. You hold it, and then you hand it off to the next person… So, right now, here it is: Conan — it’s yours. See you in five years, buddy. Clear enough?
If you’ve read this far, you’re likely familiar with the events of the Second Late-Night War and don’t need a refresher course in what happened five years later beyond, “NBC screwed Conan, and Leno went along with it.” It took six years for Leno to acknowledge that he hadn’t been as accepting of the succession plan as he’d acted in 2004. “I told a white lie on the air,” Leno confessed to Oprah Winfrey in 2010. If you believe that he’s okay with handing over Tonight now, I’ve got a (traffic study on) a bridge in New Jersey I’d like to sell you.
At least in 2014, Leno and NBC are handling things a little bit better. This time, there’s no announced backup show for Leno on NBC, and in recently published interviews with TV Guide and The Hollywood Reporter, he seems to rule out doing a Tonight-style late-night show anywhere else. He won’t be casting a shadow over Fallon, either on his own network or another, giving Fallon the breathing room he needs. And yet, while Leno has always been deeply uncomfortable being the bad guy or the complainer, he indirectly reveals things that make him seem less than happy about his exit. Some of it is disguised as praise for Fallon: “I think I probably would have stayed if we didn’t have … an extremely qualified, young guy ready to jump in.” Other digs are more subtle, such as Leno’s explanation of why he holds no grudge against Jeff Zucker, the former NBC chief who “fired” Leno the first time. “Jeff believed in The Tonight Show,” Leno told THR’s Lacey Rose. “If there was a big star in New York and we wanted them tomorrow night, Jeff would say, ‘Authorize the jet. Find $25,000. We want them. Boom.’ Those kinds of things don’t necessarily happen anymore.” That’s a far cry from the kind of direct hit that David Letterman would hurl at NBC management, but if you follow it around for a while, you see that it’s aimed at present NBC management.
Is Leno right to be aggrieved? Is he really a victim of past or current NBC administrations? After all, he is still No. 1, and in America, being No. 1 means you’re winning, and who gets rid of winners except for stupid, silly network execs? Leno might have a point here were it not for his own history with replacing late-night hosts. Remember, Johnny Carson was the undisputed king of late night when a young Leno rushed in to grab his job in the early nineties. And while Carson officially “retired,” there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that NBC execs back then nudged Johnny out the door. A 1991 report in the New York Times, for instance, notes buzz at the time that “NBC was hesitant to renew Johnny Carson’s contract because it feared losing his regular substitute, Jay Leno, who has no contract.” Three years later, after Leno had taken over Tonight, Times reporter (and author of the first late-night war’s definitive chronicle, The Late Shift) Bill Carter detailed how some NBC suits “clearly believed the sooner Jay Leno succeeded Johnny Carson the better it would be for NBC’s late-night franchise” and how Leno’s then-manager, Helen Kushnick, planted a story in the New York Post as part of “a plan to force the issue.” If the NBC execs of 2009 or now pushed Leno out, they’re simply following a template from nearly 25 years ago — a template that once greatly benefited Leno.
It’s also worth noting that NBC execs today actually have much more reason to be concerned about ratings than the suits of Peacock past. While Carson’s audience was shrinking a bit and getting older, he was still the undisputed late-night leader. Yes, Leno draws more viewers — and younger viewers — than either Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel. But in the younger demos advertisers crave, Leno doesn’t beat his cable competition: Adult Swim’s offerings regularly do better, as does Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. What’s more, Leno’s ratings are down 20 percent or more most weeks compared to the numbers he was getting when he took back Tonight from O’Brien in 2010 (and, yes, with lower 18 to 49 numbers than what Conan was generating). Against this backdrop of declining ratings and fiercer competition from cable, NBC’s decision to transition Tonight hosts while the show still has any young audience at all seems at least as understandable now as it did when NBC first tried to put in place a succession plan back in 2004 — or when NBC replaced Carson with Leno.
To be sure, there is also a valid argument to be made that, with all of its other many issues, perhaps NBC should have left late night alone for at least another year or two. In fact, I made exactly that argument last year: NBC has so many problems in prime time and in the morning that adding on a big transition in late night right now seems to be a needless distraction. Plus, Leno’s audience is loyal and consistent; there’s no guarantee that Fallon’s younger, hipper fans will make watching him at 11:35 p.m. the same sort of habit.
But just because NBC might theoretically be better off delaying things doesn’t mean Leno has a right to act hurt over what the network actually is doing. Qualified hosts of The Tonight Show don’t grow on trees. And with Jimmy Kimmel doing quite well at 11:35 for ABC, NBC execs were right to worry about letting him get too entrenched with younger viewers while it waited to see if Leno ever would feel comfortable letting go. They needed to move forward, to lock in a successor (again), even if Leno wanted to keep hanging on. Leno has said for ten years that he understands this reality. His actions and words, however, continue to suggest he really doesn’t. He’s ruled out what he calls Tonight Show “lite,” but he’s joking about doing a History Channel series and, with his kind words about Zucker, adding credibility to the rumor that a move to CNN could be in the works. But contrast that with Carson’s stepping down: He disappeared. Whatever the truth of why he left when he did, his vanishing act allowed us all to believe that this really was Johnny doing what he wanted. Even if it means telling one more “white lie,” Leno needs to put similar distance between himself and the small screen. He should play as many stand-up dates as he wants, touring till he drops. But for the sake of his own legacy, February 6 should mark the end of his TV-talk-show career.