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.

Comments (13)
  1. I hope he opens his new show by displaying all the divorces of Tonight Show staffers over the 17 years of his hosting.

  2. You finally used it in a post. Bravo, Gabe.

  3. I appropriately misread: “And just to crap it all off.”

  4. Why do I get the feeling Jay Leno thinks he was the original host of The Tonight Show?

  5. I generally agree with everything on this site, and while I agree that Leno is basically out of touch and inferior to Conan, I felt that his final episode was a nice send off. He was genuinely grateful to his staff and guests from over the years and is bowing out with class. It really wasn’t the self aggrandizing masturbation you’re making it out to be.

  6. What was upsetting was the “OW!” directed at the 17 year old. Really touching, guy.

  7. i get the feeling that you have never actually seen an episode of the tonight show until this one. not to defend leno or anything (i generally despise his sense of humor, winks and peace signs), but come on! his monologue was alluding to the past 17 years. would it not have been more strange if he had done john and kate plus 8 jokes all night instead of remembering some of the more ridiculous moments in our culture during his tonight show career?

    ugh. why am i sticking up for leno?! i want conan NOW!

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  9. gabe, videogum pals, take a knee and listen to he old tv head: i still miss the old days of my youth when letterman had a morning show and i stayed up late to watch TOMORROW with tom snyder– that’s how fucking old i am.

    the changing of the guard from snyder to letterman was quite something, but i’ll always remember the crazy desperate bookings of the plasmatics, wayne cochran, and public image ltd. on tomorrow toward the end, and the advent of leno being a semi-regular letterman guest after he took the reins of the original late night. THAT is when leno was funny.

    btw, i never had any particular love of carson, but i knew his cultural significance as an usher on the path to fame for stand-ups; the other significance is maybe, just maybe, what jay leno was nodding to in the 17 years of babies segment you described– it has been long understood by the myths of television that american babies are conceived “during carson”–but based on your rancor so far, i’m guessing letting that sink in will only make you vomit


  10. Mark  |   Posted on Jun 2nd, 2009 +1

    I totally agree… Leno is a kiss butt hack. Letterman was so much better than him in 1992, and still is, should have gotten Carson’s gig then. Conan will be a step up for NBC… even if Leno will take some ratings by doing his own 10pm show…

  11. Alex  |   Posted on Jun 2nd, 2009 +2

    Kimmel tried doing away with the monologue, but it didn’t work. As outdated as it might be, it’s too much of a staple to ever truly retire.

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