Exit stage left: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, 1992-2009

As you probably know, Jay Leno does the last Tonight Show of his 17-year stint behind the iconic desk, starting tonight (May 29) at 11:35 p.m. James Taylor is the musical guest. Conan O’Brien, the former East Coast Late Night host who takes over the Tonight Show Monday, will be his guest. Expect also what has come on every night so far, a montage of past moments. Tonight it’s Extreme Tonight Show Montage. The week started with the montage When Things Go Wrong, for which Leno was accompanied by frequent guest Mel Gibson. The montage, about things that have gone wrong on the Tonight Show, was mostly amusing. The Tonight Show is almost always amusing, usually mildly amusing, but still. What followed Monday is why I don’t ordinarily watch the show.

Gibson was going on about his new girlfriend, having just confirmed that she was expecting their first child together. He mentioned the girlfriend’s musical talents and used the composer’s name Rachmaninov, pronouncing the first syllable “rack”. To which Leno lept in with:

“And I assume she’s got a ‘Rack’-maninov?”

Now, I’m a grownup. I’m not offended by the sexual nature of this joke, the type of which pops up — although I wouldn’t use that word if Leno were in the room, for fear of provoking another creepy-uncle zinger — more nights than not. But as a viewer I am offended that this is the type of thing that passes for a joke.

Andrew Ryan of the Globe and Mail and many others have weighed in on NBC’s decision to take Leno to prime time in the fall, for a show apparently similar to his Tonight Show. It’s sensible cost-cutting, say some observers, noting that no matter how much Leno makes, his show will not require the financial investment necessary to develop the hour-long dramas that occupy that spot on other major networks. For NBC, Leno’s show is money in the bank. That it will also kneecap O’Brien’s Tonight Show debut by siphoning off the audience is a whole other lament, which I’ll save for later in the weekend.

Moving Leno to prime time is also a brave gamble on NBC’s part. Will this be a new Ed Sullivan-type show, heavy not just on humour but also on performance? Could this signal a revival of the era when Carole Burnett and Dean Martin et al kept audiences rapt with their celebrity-sketch-song-and-dance variety shows? Will the majority of the U.S. audience lap up the comedy, “Rack”-ish though it is, instead of crime, death, rape, serial-killing and the zooming shots of autopsied organs and the probably flight path of the murder weapon? Or, for relief, the disease of the week? (I intended to list the shows in these categories, but it was almost all the shows at the top of the ratings. As a friend recently wondered, “What the hell is our obsession with death, illness, women in peril?” But that’s a column for another day.)

So will Leno be welcome with open arms and huge audience numbers? Will the CSIs, Law & Orders, Criminal Minds, Southlands, Houses, Boneses, Fringes feel the heat? Will their commissioning networks scramble for their own versions of The Jay Leno Show?

I dunno. Ryan over at the Globe says:

“Coming from a fourth-place network, during a recession, the new Leno show is probably as close as TV comes to a sure thing.”

What do you think? And yes, my friend, this plea for your opinion is a transparent attempt to drive up traffic to this blog. Tell your family! Tell your friends! Let’s get the party started! But it is also a sincere call for help: What the hell is the attraction of Jay Leno? Will you follow him to prime time?

Our lines are open. The operators are standing by. Or you could just comment below.

And if I’ve whipped you into a frenzy of late-night theorizing, you might enjoy The Late Shift, the movie inspired by New York Times columnist Bill Carter’s take on the whole Leno vs. Letterman for helm of the Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson left. It’s airing tonight (May 29) on HBO Canada at 8 p.m. ET.

— Denise Duguay

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