‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ Finale Review: An Un-Fitting Farewell

Published 10 months ago by , Updated February 7th, 2014 at 12:33 pm,

leno finale monologue The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Finale Review: An Un Fitting Farewell

Despite leaving The Tonight Show while still standing atop the ratings, ably following 30 years of Johnny Carson – the man who revolutionized both the show and the form – with his own successful 22 year run, there were no rose petals thrown at Jay Leno’s feet in the waning days of his empire. Sure, NBC paid the requisite respect and Leno and his team did their best to celebrate their longevity and some of their best moments, but it all felt a bit downbeat, and not just because we’ve been through this with Leno before.

Back in 2009, Leno left the Tonight Show with a destination in mind. The prime time Jay Leno Show would keep him busy, keep him plugging away at his craft, and it also kept his people employed – something that has always been a high priority for Leno.

Back then, Leno’s legacy as a hard worker, a consummate professional, and a good guy was also intact. He was thought of as the preferred host of the (so-called) fly-over states, winning big audiences, but also winning the so-called “wrong audiences” when it came to critics. However, bits like “Jaywalking” and “Headlines,” and his lengthy monologues solidified Leno’s popularity and industry respect. He didn’t change late-night like Carson had, but he was a sturdy hand who had built a meat and potatoes juggernaut while being written off as the tragically un-hip option in comparison to the more intellectually and comically-revered David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.

leno finale carson leno The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Finale Review: An Un Fitting Farewell

We all know what eventually happened with Leno’s prime-time show, Conan’s switch from Late Night to The Tonight Show, and the subsequent effect on Leno’s reputation as he says farewell once more. Now Jay Leno’s television future is unknown and he is – rightly or wrongly – a villain to many.

Does that reputation bother Jay Leno? It’s hard to tell for certain, but he doesn’t seem like the type to let those that are chasing him see that they are gaining on him, so as he walks away with some people offering up the wrong kind of cheers, exiting in a way that is so contrary to the way that the beloved Carson left, common sense says that it has to burn in some small way. That’s possibly evidenced by the way that he has played the good soldier, pleading with people to watch Fallon, even last night at the very end of his last episode, as if to show people that he is really handing off the baton this time – because he knows that it is time.

What’s the difference between this time and last time, though? Here’s Leno’s somewhat controversial praise to 60 Minutes about Late Night host Jimmy Fallon and his Tonight Show worthiness:

“An extremely qualified young guy ready to jump in”

The easy implication is that Leno doesn’t think that Conan was as qualified when he took over The Tonight Show, but while that’s not necessarily what Leno was saying (though, maybe it was) in some ways, it’s true; Conan O’Brien wasn’t as ready to host The Tonight Show as Fallon is.

leno finale conan The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Finale Review: An Un Fitting Farewell

As has been said often, Fallon makes every show feel like a party. It is a charming show and one that is inclusive. Conan O’Brien, when he was at his best, made his show for himself and his writers (and with Louis CK, Bob Odenkirk, Robert Smigel, and Dino Stamatopoulos among his writers, that’s a pretty good audience). It was exclusionary and it was comedic ecstasy for comedy nerds and those that like their late-night a bit less grounded and less within the lines. As the saying goes, though, that doesn’t always play well in Peoria, and so when Conan graduated to The Tonight Show – a show whose history and built-in audience demands a tone more fit for a broader audience than the 12:30 show - his style unfortunately changed, disregarding Johnny Carson’s advice (given in 2004 when Conan was named as Leno’s successor) about being himself because “it’s the only way that it can work”.

Amazingly, when it didn’t work (and it could have certainly worked with more network patience), Conan continued to be inclusive when he started his TBS show, though that seems to be slowly falling by the wayside, since that show looks more like the Late Night version than the Tonight Show version of Conan, which is for the better. None of this should be a problem for Fallon, though, as his version of Late Night seems more ready to port over with only a few minor alterations. Obviously that’s something that Leno sees as well.

Jay Leno isn’t as out-of-touch as many perceive him to be. He knows that the world has changed and that these shows often get the most attention for only a sliver of the content put forth, thanks to clips on Hulu, YouTube, and the like. Jimmy Fallon is for this era, he is young, adventurous, and energetic – things that Leno is clearly not at the age of 63. There is no clearer contrast between Fallon and Leno than the one you notice while watching the “Best of” reels that have aired on their respective shows this week. On Fallon’s, you see the charismatic showman rapping and dancing with Justin Timberlake. With Leno, his head is superimposed onto the body of someone else who is singing and dancing around.

leno finale fallon leno The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Finale Review: An Un Fitting Farewell

Despite Leno’s willingness to accept his creeping obsolescence and raise the white flag, finally yielding to a new host, there are many who will look at his uneventful and borderline culturally-irrelevant Tonight Show exit as a fitting punishment for his sins against O’Brien, Letterman (because there is no statute of limitations when the crime is Tonight Show theft) and the like. To others, though, it will simply be a mostly forgettable night that was filled with a couple of light jabs at NBC, some tributes (from an army of Leno’s friends and loyalists like Garth Brooks, Carol Burnett, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Maher, and Billy Crystal, who called Leno “America’s Nightlight”), one last OJ Simpson joke, and no real celebration.

We may never know if Leno truly regrets coming back to host the Tonight Show for four more years, standing in as everyone’s favorite punching bag. What we do know is that it will be one of the things that he is most remembered for – a legacy that seems sad, a little unfair, and final, because as Leno tearfully said goodbye last night, thanking his fans for their loyalty and his staff for being his family, we saw a man who looked done and who won’t be coming back again – not because he doesn’t want to, but because he now knows that he can’t.

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The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon premieres on NBC February 17th @11:30ET PM

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  1. I thought it was a nice send off. I never really watched his show a lot and I like Jimmy Fallon more but those last 5 minutes were emotional TV classic material that you can’t script. I wish the millionaire well…

  2. I disagree with your assessment. I thought it was a proper send-off.,I enjoyed the show. I’m going to miss Jay as the host since I think that he’s a better interviewer than Fallon. Nevertheless, I am glad that Fallon is going to host instead of Conan.

  3. I prefer Conan over Fallon or Leno. He’s way funnier than they are, for me anyway. Leading up to Leno’s farewell last time Late Night With Conan was my end all fave talk show on the air. I loved his humor, his adventures to ILM or the prop room. (I remember when he destroyed a toaster in the prop room with a battle axe, that was hilariously epic)

    When Conan started on the Tonight Show everything felt a bit off. They didn’t have his old announcer, his old band (they were missing a few players), and Andy Richter kept awkwardly interrupting everything. Its like they ruined my fave talk show.

    His new show on TBS is great. It’s just as good as his old show.

    • Definitely agree, Conan is much better of a host than Fallon, who in my opinion is pretty mediocre

      • Fallon is just so awkward. I’ll be honest I love some of his side skits and gags EX: his random nonsensical games and his bits with Justin Timberlake (the hashtag thing was particuarly good).

        But whenever its just him talking to a celeb the conversation seems rushed and/or forced. Its rather discomforting. It’s the same feeling I used to get watching the office when Michael Scott would do something really stupid in front of everybody.

        • Actually, I agree with you about how awkward Fallon is when he’s interviewing a guest. I usually only watch late night talk shows for specific guests. I’m going to amend the last sentence of my first post by adding that I think that JF needs to improve his interviewing skills.

      • Personally, I prefer Conan. When I wrote that Fallon is more ready to host the Tonight Show, that didn’t mean that he is better than Conan and I apologize if it seemed like it did. The notion of 11:30 guys and 12:30 guys has faded a bit. Conan puts on a good show, his style just didn’t instantly gel with the Tonight Show audience. These things take time. It’ll be really interesting to see Meyers and Fallon one week in, six months in, one year in. Conan looked like a lightstruck deer when he started on Late Night, it took Ferguson some time to loosen up and find his tone.

        • Interesting I didn’t get that from reading your article. But that makes sense. Conan caters to a different audience, as does Leno, or Fallon. To be fair though the changes they made to Conan’s show when they moved him to late night were pretty bad. It was unfamiliar to the existing tonight show crowd, and the changes made to the show alienated existing Conan fans. It didn’t even feel like Conan anymore.

          Also I totally forgot that Seth Meyers will be replacing Fallon. That should be awesome to watch. It’ll be like Weekend Update every night of the week!

    • Yeah, Conan’s brilliant. I still think Letterman is the funniest though.

      I remember staying up late back in the day (we get US talks shows weeks after they air live in America and usually around the 2am slot, my early teen years were spent staying up late watching Letterman before switching to Bravo for ECW’s Hardcore TV show) and tuning into Leno a couple of times because I heard he was better and wanted to see for myself.

      Needless to say, I spent maybe 3 nights watching his show and never looked back. Never found him funny.

      Those last few minutes were emotional though I guess. He’ll find a way to come back, rampant ego does that, as he proved last time he stepped away. I did enjoy him as The Crimson Chin though in Fairly Odd Parents. That show had some hilarious writing.

      • Sometimes I forget you live in a another country Dazz haha.. That would definitely make watching Conan more difficult.

        I remember one episode where Conan was talking about his foreign fans. It was really funny. I think he was talking about viewers in France or Finland (I think it was something with an F) and he was wondering how they could possibly find any redeeming value in his show haha.. I love his self deprecatory humor. He pulls it off very well.

        Yeah Leno’s just a bit stale. He isn’t quick on his feet like Conan or other hosts are.

        • It was Finland. He had quite a fanbase apparently, due in part to his remembrance to their president/prime minister(?).

    • I just find Conan a little too zany to be Tonight Show host.

  4. Wonderfully written article. Laughed out loud at work at the Statute of Limitations joke. Well done!

    • Thanks, sorry about that :)

  5. Im mad I missed it. Completely forgot. I’ll miss Jay, mainly because I preferred him over Fallon, Letterman, Obrien and the worst of the bunch, Kimmel.
    Stephen Colbert and Craig Ferguson will always be my top two though. Their interviews are best.

    • Craig is the only one I regularly watch (I DVR it), but I always liked Jay. I think he was given a raw deal on this one. That being said, I will give Jimmy a chance since I have liked him since SNL.

  6. I watch Kimmel. Am I the only one?

    • I watch him too. He’s actually my favorite out of everyone.

  7. Fallon is so much better more entertaining and funnier than Leno. Leno and Letterman are both old school, make fun of people funny, biting sarcasm type funny. Conan is self deprecating funny. Fallon is just funny in general without having to bash people, and you never know what is going to happen on his show. Egg roulette, pictionary w/ Neil Patrick Harris, preview the next gaming system, etc. It’s always different, and he’s funny, at least for me.

  8. This did feel a little anti-climatic which I suppose couldn’t be avoided because we did see this just a few years ago but I thought it was a solid goodbye.
    I’ve never been the biggest fan of Leno but there was a time when I would watch on a regular basis but that was a long time ago and now my late night viewing is usually a mix of Conan, The Daily Show and Colbert with priority being based on the guests, musical acts or the days events.

    In the long run I think both Fallon and Seth Meyers will do fine in their new roles but late night TV in general will never reach its’ prior status. There are just too many other options now. I just hope that NBC doesn’t overreact when ratings drop. Give both hosts time to build a show and don’t chase ratings that they’ll never catch.

  9. Fallon has great skits and jokes that are fresher then Leno or Letterman combined but he acts like a little kid when he interviews people…has anyone seen the way they portray Fallon on Family Guy hahaha it`s hilarious

  10. Conan > Fallon any day of the week.

  11. Screw Leno. He was never The Tonight Show. He was a sore thumb on late night talk shows. He was like your creep uncle or creepy gym teacher. Never was hip or cool. Overstayed a welcome which was never there in the first place.

    • Ah…he was the highest rated out of all of them.

      Sorry YOU feel that way.

  12. Hopefully it won’t turn into the Jimmy Fallon Variety Show

  13. CONAN > God

    • That might be the dumbest thing anyone has ever written on this site.

      • I agree with your opinion, Andy S.

  14. It was a good send off. Garth Brooks singing The Dance was fitting considering the turmoil and tarnishment after the Conan debacle. I will miss Jay. I grew up watching him and I hope NBC leaves him be this time. You could tell Jay’s heart isn’t in it for a third stint if the moron execs at NBC decide Jimmy is a failure too.

  15. Goodbye Jay !

    Thanks for 22 years of laughter.

  16. At the end of the day..Leno still left the tonight show at the highest ratings.

    Out of Conan,Letterman,Fallon…anyone…Jay’s Tonight Show still had the highest ratings.. Just..no arguments there.

    Personally…I thought Conan didn’t do enuf…the start was pretty bad.. It might have improved…but seeing his current show…its okay, nothing more.

    Excited for Fallon. He’s definitely ready to take over.

    And the end part of the show with leno talking about how the tonight show and nbc is pretty much his only family…that was a good moment.

  17. I’m happy for Seth Myers, he’s really coming into his own.Having been on The Weekend Update for so long, he was the top contender, if not the outright first pick, for Late Night. I have high hopes he’s gonna change the tone that Fallon created and probably appeal to all demographics as well as bringing the diehards that watched him on TWU.
    Fallon made me feel very inclusive. He’s always been awkward in interviews, but, as Timberlake pointed out early last year, that’s part of his charm and who he is. He’s not a serious interviewer; it’s not a formal talk show. It’s a show that people watch to get a very different impression on what someone else is doing on a talk show, albeit as awkward and hilarious as possible. I know he will carry over his brand of the show and attract even more viewers.
    Conan takes me on adventures and hilariously tries to demo new video games to cater to a younger audience. I always felt that he was in the middle of pleasing the younger and middle-aged demographic rather than the older demographic that usually watched the tonight show. He should’ve at least gotten more time to settle in to the new tone of the tonight show before he was ousted of which led him to TBS. George Lopez’s show was running high for the first few months and then just started losing ratings. GL helped bring in Conan as a way to help boost his own ratings, but inevitably passed the torch over to him when his show was cancelled. He’s coming back with a new show on FX though.

    All in all in my opinion, good riddance, Jay Leno, and please, stay away. I share the same sentiments expressed by Jimmy Kimmel in the video interview he had with Leno after he came back.

  18. Love him or hate him, Leno ruled the 11:35 time slot for over 20 years.

    And all the sour grapes from a bunch of failed wannabess will never change that.

  19. I like Letterman because he’s kind of snarky, kind of has a demeanor I don’t know how to describe but I can relate to.

    I don’t like Leno, partially because he’s too broad and has no edges to him (in a comedy sense, not a physical sense), but also because he has a history of swiping shows out from under people (did it to Letterman and Conan).

    I love Conan, because he and his show have the same weirdo sense of humor I have. Plus that squinty face he makes at the camera when a guest makes a sexual comment.

    I like Fallon and Kimmel but dont’ watch them every night. but I do watch their stuff every few days on Hulu +

  20. Jay’s departure was an glaring instance of anti ethnic ageism. And fanboys who blame him for the Coco fiasco display a form of discrimination and hate. If he were a Smith or Jones, he’d still be coming back Monday. Instead, he was treated like a scrub for the last decade because he was never lily white folksy enough for The Tonight Show.

    • what?

  21. Craig Ferguson Rules!

    • Amen to that! He’s the only one I watch. It’s kind of sad that he doesn’t get the attention of these others, but then I wouldn’t want him to change anything.

    • he has lost it…he hasn’t been the same for atleast a couple years i don’t know what happened, maybe having a kid has hit him at this age

  22. I’ve been a fan of Conan since 2000 when he was on Late Night and was really disappointed when he lost the Tonight Show but ultimately it was probably for the best since he could be more like his old self on TBS.

    As for Jay, I was never really into his humor, some bits would be amusing every now and then but I hardly watched. It was always Letterman then switch it over to Conan. Until he moved and I started avidly watching Craig Ferguson! The man is comedy gold! ;)

  23. I would live to know the actual NBC exec that came up with this idea. Leno was winning all demographic’s including the important (18-49). The funny thing is that the previous NBC brass actually got it right when the transition from Johnny to Jay happened. What a lot of people forget is that (when they talk about Jay hosting for 22yrs) Jay for five years before he officially took over in 92 was co-hosting 2-3 nights a week for Johnny. This was when Johnny wanted more time off, and NBC didn’t want him to leave altogether……I could go on for an hour about why this recent change is such a dumb move but I’ll refrain. Thx for listening!

  24. It is really too bad that Jay Leno will no longer be the host! He was so awesome!