If people have noticed that Jay Leno’s sendoff from the Tonight show has been extremely low-key, there is one explanation: it’s not his first one. Leno said goodbye to late-night in 2009, and if we knew it wasn’t for good even at the time–he was leaving to host a mini-Tonight Show at 10 p.m.–it was still a moving retrospective, with a serenade from James Taylor, and a classy thank-you to Jay’s staff in which he brought on stage all the children born to the crew over the years. There may be second acts in American lives, but it’s hard to get people worked up for a second curtain call.
But also, a protracted sendoff never seemed Jay’s style. One thing Jay’s fans and detractors respond to in him is that he looks at hosting not as art or an exalted calling but a job. If you love him, it means he doesn’t put on airs but just works damn hard to help people unwind and laugh five nights a week. If you hate him, it mean that he was a careerist who took his comedic gifts and wasted them by watering down his comedy to appeal to the biggest audience possible.
Either way, though, he’s been consistent in treating comedy as just a business–one that he’s been fortunately well-paid at, but a business just the same. You work it as long as you can, and when you can’t work it anymore, you can’t cry foul. Everybody has jobs, and everybody retires, and the only difference between them and Jay is that he has a few more cars to drive around in his newfound free time.
So it was with more showbiz than sentiment that Leno brought on a whole slew of celebrities to say goodbye to Tonight. Not entirely quietly: Leno referred to being twice elbowed out for Conan O’Brien then Jimmy Fallon, saying that he didn’t anticipate coming back to Tonight again–“I don’t need get fired three times! I get the hint!”
Bringing out Billy Crystal, his first Tonight guest, to be his last was a way of bracketing his career and his legacy at NBC. After being the young guy to step in for Johnny Carson in 1992, Jay hosted the show for most of 22 years, and led the ratings for most of those 22 years. (First in a stretch running roughly from Hugh Grant to Conan; then for about four years after Conan’s ouster, like a band coming back on stage for an encore.)
Let’s be honest: it will be David Letterman, whom Leno beat out for Johnny’s chair, that TV history remembers as his generation’s most influential, inventive, monumental late-night host. Letterman changed late night; Leno kept it humming along. But for two decades–a geologic age in a fickle business–Leno was what he wanted to be: the people’s choice. You don’t do that without damn hard work, and Jay deserved to take a few bows.
So Jay joked in his monologue about how much time had passed; 22 years ago “guys had to go to the newsstand for porn!” He ran a montage of some of his favorite political gags (and received goodbye wishes from President Obama). He collected goodbyes, spoken and musical, from a Sgt. Pepper’s gallery of celebs, among them: Oprah Winfrey, Carol Burnett, Jack Black, Kevin Bacon, Charlie Sheen, Sheryl Crow, Larry the Cable Guy, Miley Cyrus, Garth Brooks, Fallon, and Bill Maher (who also recorded a “Welcome Back” message just in case).
Finally, in the last minutes of the show, Jay let his even keel waver. His voice breaking–“Boy, this is the hard part”–he recalled the milestones he’d lived through during his years on Tonight, the deaths of his parents and his brother, and thanked the audience and his wife, Mavis. Above all, he thanked his staff, who made Tonight a second home for him–one reason, he said, that he didn’t ditch NBC for another network the last time around. Hosting Tonight, he said, “was the greatest 22 years of my life.”
I wouldn’t bet on Jay’s retiring; he already has plenty of comedy gigs booked and could easily work on TV again, but he seems now to realize, not on this network in this time slot. I’ve seen Jay Leno quit Tonight once; this time his tone seemed more final. “It really is time to go,” he said.
Maybe the second time’s the charm.