Let's Discuss: Jay Leno's Late Night Legacy

Why is it that on the evening of Jay Leno’s last episode as the host of “The Tonight Show” there was still so much animosity towards him? Entertainment Weekly, for example, penned a blow by blow of the harsh criticism thrown towards him through the years and with the headline “Big Jaw vs. The World” there is really no question as to where their sentiments lied.

Most of the bad blood seems to be gushing from those who are still upset about David Letterman not getting “The Tonight Show” chair after the legendary Johnny Carson, vacated it in 1992. Whatever the backstage politics and how it ended up happening, NBC was the ultimate decider, when it came to who would inherit the throne of late-night.

Agree with the decision or not, it wasn’t the decision of Leno, no matter all of the allegations of some omnipotent maneuver of manipulation. As Machiavellian as they make it out to be, Letterman simply wasn’t the network’s pick.

It’s been 22 years since then and still, emotions seem to be running high about the events that led to Letterman getting his own late-night gabfest. He would eventually go against Leno in a timeslot war and the proof is in the ratings. Leno dominated in the ratings for the better part of 17 years per Deadline.

An argument could be made, that had Letterman been given the job on “The Tonight Show”, he wouldn’t have had the ratings success Leno did. If NBC was interested in ratings and henceforth advertising dollars, which let’s be honest, is a network’s key motivation for anything concerning their line-up, the evidence is clear. They made the right decision.

As for the 2009 debacle, that was actually the result of an event that had occurred 4 years earlier in 2004, when NBC announced Leno would be retiring to make room for Conan O’Brien despite the fact that Leno was still doing great in the ratings. According to CBS News,  O’Brien had forced the network’s hand by demanding he replace Leno or he’d leave the network after his contract was up.

Frightened at the prospect, NBC foolishly, forced Leno aside so O’Brien could take the helm. Keep in mind, hardly anyone looks back at this event with any particular indignation that O’Brien forced Leno out of his job.

A job that Leno was doing quite well at and then years later, when O’Brien has failed in the ratings, after forcing the timeslot winner out, all blame turns to Leno for taking back a job he should’ve never been forced out of, to begin with.

Under O’Brien’s term, viewers revolted, ratings tanked and NBC with a horrible PR disaster on their hands, had to take the squandering “Tonight Show” back from O’Brien. Team Coco would riot as his perceived unfair treatment, outraged some very shrill members of the public.

Let’s break down facts, despite all of the protesting O’Brien had not delivered equal to or better ratings than the exiting Leno. In terms of business, the decision was obvious.

NBC’s mistake came in wanting their cake and eating it too, as the old adage goes. They knew audiences weren’t ready to say goodbye to Leno, the timing was simply terrible and it quickly became clear that viewers weren’t warming up to O’Brien. So the network chose to give Leno another show to try to keep him from going to a competing network, obviously knowing he would be a threat to O’Brien, should he take on a rival show.

When Coco continued to languish into ratings oblivion, the network pulled Leno back to save the show. The idea that Leno had to wait in the wings and destroy O’Brien’s chance at ascendancy is misguided. O’Brien handled the ratings of “The Tonight Show”, all by himself.

Five years later, NBC is having Leno sign-off again, this despite his continued ratings domination. The network still hasn’t learned the patent lesson of “it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”. The only thing keeping this from being a retread of 2009 is that Jimmy Fallon is a more natural choice to take over the franchise. As a result, falling ratings shouldn’t be a problem for the exuberant soon-to-be former host of “Late Night”.

Where are all of the players and naysayers from 2009 now? Conan O’Brien went on to have his own show on TBS, the aptly titled “Conan”, where he displaced George Lopez’s “Lopez Tonight” from its timeslot for his own show. Meanwhile, Team Coco defiantly boasted a “we’ll show you”. Well, not so much.

Jimmy Kimmel made a big move to battle Leno head-to-head, where he too was unable to unseat Leno, as the overall ratings, leader of late-night. Per TV By The Numbers, during the week of January 13 – 17, 2014 the total viewers were as follows: “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” was #1 with 4 million viewers. In second place was “The Late Show with David Letterman” with 2.9 million viewers. In third place was “Jimmy Kimmel Live” with 2.5 million viewers.

Whatever, one’s opinion might be about the so-called “Late Night Wars”, the attacks upon Leno’s physical appearance, especially his chin, are a juvenile, low blow. Leno has been self-effacing when it comes to his appearance and yet people continue to make ugly comments that are just cruel and unnecessary.

Major props belong to Arsenio Hall for his classy comments last night (per Monsters and Critics), concerning Leno’s exit. Hall showed true decorum. Elsewhere, O’Brien took another swipe at Leno on “Conan,” which the LA Times reported on. After 5 years, he is still blaming the wrong person for why he lost “The Tonight Show”.

As for Leno, he has shown more restraint and class than a lot of people in his situation might’ve mustered. At the end of the day, he can hold his head high. Getting down in the mud isn’t his style and for that, he can leave feeling clean.

[Image by Eclectic Pop]