Leno's last Tonight show: I'm sorry, but it's no big deal
By David Zurawik
May 29, 2009 | 4:35 AM
I am sorry, but I just can't get worked up or even a little sentimental for Jay Leno's last night as host of The Tonight Show Friday.
Maybe it is because he is not actually going anywhere except to a new time period on NBC starting in September. Do neighbors get teary eyed and think back across the years when someone on their block moves one or two house away?
In a business sense, Leno's move is a big deal because of the way it could change the face of prime-time network TV as we have known it for almost half a century. It could also affect the late news fortunes of some NBC affiliates. And we had a Page One story on all of that Monday in the Sun.
Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to minimize Leno's 17-year run as host of the show -- that's something he should be rightfully proud of.
And he can be a funny guy. I laughed at his Thursday night monologue when the audience booed one of his jokes, and he yelled back, "I got one night left -- I'm real scared.... Your letters won't get here until Monday, and I'll be gone."
But we never really saw enough of that Leno -- he was the latenight comic who played it safe and went out of his way to offend no one. In truth, he is getting the new show in prime time because he is and has always been a great company man. He will wisely try to shape his prime-time show in away that makes the NBC affiliate managers who are worried about their late news happy -- and that makes his NBC bosses happy, at least for now.
That is what Friday night's show is really all about -- a smooth corporate handoff. Some analysts were surprised when they heard Leno's last guest would be Conan O'Brien, his successor -- not me. Leno is using his show to hand off the baton, just as Tom Brokaw passed his NBC News anchor desk job to Brian Williams. NBC is good at using the medium to give drama and meaning to its corporate rites of passge.
But don't expect me to make a big deal out of it or get choked up. I'm waiting for the real game to start in September when we find out whether NBC is correct in betting that Americans are ready to say goodbye to prime-time drama at 10 o'lock in favor of Leno.