Friday, February 07, 2014

Farewell to Jay Leno

Okay, this time it's for real.

One could be forgiven for feeling the slightest bit of déjà vu last night as Jay Leno retired from NBC's The Tonight Show (again), bringing out Billy Crystal (again) to be his final guest (again). After all, it was just under five years ago that Leno abdicated his talk show desk to Conan O'Brien, and while the subsequent game of musical chairs that ended with Leno resuming his role on top of the bill has been talked to death, yesterday's proceedings had an air of finality to them that wasn't there last time, when we all knew that Jay had a (short-lived) primetime yakker waiting for him in the wings.

With Leno's Tonight tenure(s) now officially adjourned, it becomes a matter for TV historians to determine what mark -- beyond mere longevity -- he left on the storied franchise, which has been the number one late night show (in an ever-crowded field) for the vast majority of his time. While the "He's no Johnny," "It should've been Dave," and "He screwed Conan" contingents will always command a sizable chunk of the narrative, I think Leno's unmatched, borderline-manic work ethic, coupled with his resolute determination to keep Tonight at the top of the ratings heap deserve a lot of applause as well. He leaves the show on solid footing for whatever Jimmy Fallon does next.

For me, Leno's time on Tonight is a personal marker of sorts. My family and I moved back to the States from Saudi in June of '92, mere weeks after he took over from Johnny Carson. I was in junior high then. His retirement is an indicator for me (as it is for many, no doubt) of the sheer volume of years that have passed. As his final monologue rattled off the social and cultural changes during the past two decades, you realize that a key to Leno's appeal was the simple comfort of the familiar. You didn't need to watch regularly to know that he was always there. As you get older, the number of touchstones you can cling to gets smaller and smaller. For twenty-two years, Jay Leno on The Tonight Show was one of those touchstones.

Here's late night maven Bill Carter's take on Leno's exit, and you can check out Jay's emotional final farewell to the audience below:

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