It’s the end of an era in the increasingly irrelevant world of broadcast television as Jay Leno steps down as host of the Tonight Show for a second and presumably last time. Today also in a way marks the end of a long series of errors, from NBC’s appointment of Leno over Letterman, the two comedian’s bitter rivalry, 2009’s botched Conan O’Brien transition, and the popular pillaging of Leno as some sort of unjust comedic dictator.
Looking back at the last 20 odd years of late night TV comedy, those old battles and rifts seems wholly unnecessary. At the end of the day, we’re talking about jokes and those who tell them for crazy, crazy money. Like a lot of cultural nuggets in America, the late night war became a canvas where the various camps of our divided culture projected itself. East Coast vs. West Coast, Red State vs. Blue State, High Brow vs. Everyman. Sides were drawn. Letterman or Leno became a cultural litmus test.
I’m of that weird post-Gen X pre-Millennial generation that grew up with rabbit ears and UHF stations and migrated to Hulu and DVRs. I often fell asleep to the sounds of my grandfather laughing at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. In my late adolescence, I got an insomnia bug and started tuning in to the weird show that followed, Late Night with David Letterman. There was something about those late night talk shows that grabbed me and didn’t let go.
As a teen, I devoured Bill Carter’s phenomenal New York Times articles and wore out my copy of The Late Shift. I taped key Letterman, Leno, and Conan episodes for posterity. As recently as last year I bought and gleefully read Paul Schaffer’s autobiography. I was firmly entrenched in the late night war, a Letterman guy all the way. Music spurned a lot of that for me, with Letterman’s slate of alt-rock heroes representing my kind of American culture, and Leno’s country and pop stable reminding me of the inside of a Circle K. A lot of it was the humor. I’m a sarcastic weirdo and Dave’s sarcastic, weird, annoyed delivery jived with my sensibilities. I was solidly in the “Leno sucks” camp.
Leno famously gained the upper hand with his 1995 Hugh Grant interview and never relented, but Letterman carved out a unique spot on the broadcasting map that did not exist. Today’s legion of talk shows, from the Colbert Report to Chelsea Lately, can trace their lineage back to Dave’s break from NBC. Letterman proved that The Tonight Show could exist elsewhere, in different flavors.
Credit is due to Leno, however, for a number of reasons. First, following Johnny Carson is perhaps the most thankless position in the history of show business. Stepping into the vaunted timeslot of a certified American institution brings a slate of unrealistic expectations and glib, pointed criticism. It didn’t help that where Carson was cool and detached, Leno ran hot and loud. The contrast was impossible not to notice. Second, Leno fended off a host of challengers from Arsenio Hall to Dennis Miller, and maintained the Tonight Show as the top of the ratings heap for 20 plus years.
In the end, it’s funny how little that seems to matter. Ratings, the gold currency of broadcast TV, have almost become irrelevant. The top shows on TV are produced by cable, and content is increasingly viewed on phones and tablets, with Google Glass and VR hanging out just around the corner. The game has changed massively. The top rated show on TV is a zombie program produced by AMC. Imagine that 15 years ago?
Stranger yet is how NBC executives, presumably the same forces that guided Leno from edgy club comedian to a more centrist, populist figure all in the name of ratings success turned against their number one producer not once but twice. Leno did exactly what NBC wanted, made the network oodles of cash, and yet was openly targeted for replacement years ahead of schedule. Makes you wonder how many times he was targeted for replacement behind the scenes. From Leno’s perspective, it must seem like no good deed goes unpunished.
What a trip it’s been in the 20+ years since Carson stepped down and the big late night kerfuffle ensued. Tonight marks the closure of one chapter in that still evolving story. A particular version of the Tonight Show is ending, putting closure on a long run of errors and botched handoff attempts, but with offers from other networks already rumored, this is likely not the last of Jay Leno.