Not many people can say they got pushed out of a job twice while at the top of their game. But Jay Leno, the famously workaholic host of NBC's Tonight Show, is one who can.
By most measures, he should be one of the Peacock Network's most powerful stars; for 22 years – with one small break — he's hosted the highest-rated late-night show on television. Even as profits have sagged in recent years, the Tonight Show franchise pulls in $125 million in revenue, according to Kantar Media (that figure, however, is down from $255-million in 2007).
But NBC tried handing his show over to Conan O'Brien in 2009, only to hand it back when ratings crashed for both O'Brien's Tonight Show and a 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show that felt mostly like a watered-down version of his old 11:35 p.m. program.
Tonight, Leno, 63, offers his second goodbye. Once again, he's giving up the Tonight Show to a younger host (39-year-old Jimmy Fallon, who starts Feb. 17); and once again, he's leaving like the Rodney Dangerfield of late-night comedy – unable to get much respect, despite his ratings victories, his repeated triumphs over executives at NBC and his status as one of the hardest-working comics in television.
His biggest crime: being the guy who led the Tonight Show as it plunged from Hollywood's biggest showbiz institution to just another late night comedy show.
Critics don't like Leno because they sense he's full of it – using an aw-shucks, working-class-guy demeanor to camouflage a ruthless, competitive spirit and almost pathological focus on his comedy work. The Late Shift, a compelling 1994 book by New York Times reporter Bill Carter, detailed how Leno stood in a closet to listen as NBC executives planned the late-night transition.
They eventually gave Leno the job, though the show's signature host and King of Late Night, Johnny Carson, clearly wanted David Letterman as his successor. ("Just how pissed off are you?" Carson asked Letterman during a 1991 appearance on the Tonight Show after the succession plan was made public. Skip to 3:22 to hear it.)
Sixteen years later, Leno got NBC to let him essentially export all his best Tonight segments to a 10 p.m. time slot before Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show and there was a sense the Old Jay had struck again. When ratings cratered for both shows and Leno had his old job back after the dust settled, few people in show business were surprised, other than O'Brien.
But tonight's transition is different, for many reasons.
Lorne Michaels, who has become the godfather of comedy at NBC as executive producer of Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Fallon's new Tonight Show and the new Late Night with Seth Meyers, is overseeing the transition. Leno's showbiz stock was seriously diminished by the O'Brien episode, and all NBC's rival networks have late-night plans in place that have no room for him, lessening his leverage.
Leno himself has downplayed the drama of this succession, submitting to a small number of carefully planned interviews where he says essentially the same thing: this time, NBC asked instead of forcing him to leave the show, and he's an older guy ready to leave the late night game.
"I think I probably would have stayed if we didn't have an extremely qualified, young guy ready to jump in," Leno told 60 Minutes recently. "[Jimmy Fallon] is probably more like a young Johnny (Carson) than almost anybody since. And he's really good. So you go with the new guy. Makes perfect sense to me."
But for anybody who knows Leno's work habits – he famously writes monologue jokes until the wee hours every weeknight, gets by on four hours of sleep and regularly jets off for standup gigs on weekends – his current, laid-back attitude about leaving the Tonight Show makes little sense.
Perhaps Leno is so laid back in part because he too knows the Tonight Show doesn't really exist the way showbiz veterans remember. Once the star-making vehicle for comic talents, the proliferation of competition from the Kimmels, O'Briens, Stewarts and Colberts of the new late-night universe have reduced the Tonight Show's stature.
Leno takes some of the blame for dumbing down the show's comedy with bits like The Dancing Itos – a group of dancers dressed to look like the judge from O.J. Simpson's murder trial. Or long monologues aimed at middle-aged viewers in the middle of the country, populist and safe.
But late-night TV has changed from a place where comedy careers are made to a landscape where viral videos are born. Huge chunks of the audience for The Daily Show, Fallon's Late Night, Kimmel's ABC show and the others come from viewers who watch the show's bits the next day online.
Late-night TV isn't where you go to hang out with famous and funny people, anymore. It's where you go to witness signature moments you know others will be sharing on the Internet the next day.
Which may explain, as much as anything, why NBC is comfortable replacing TV's top-rated late night host with the guy who got President Obama to slow jam the news.
Still, as Leno helms his last Tonight Show tonight, it's worth remembering his success in reaching viewers, leading a show that literally defined the style of late-night television back when it debuted in 1954.
It's an enduring irony that the populist image that helped cement his success may also be the reason he's not seen as a legend as he leaves the show's stage one last time.