Three days before he walked out of a Burbank, California theater and bid farewell to “The Tonight Show, which he had hosted for 17 years, Jay Leno made one last jab at Hollywood icon Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He gave the best vocal impersonation yet of the Austrian Oak (who later appeared as a guest) in a fitting tribute to the kind of signature sketch he has turned into one of his most identifiable shticks during his career.
On his final night, Leno thanked the celebrities and political figures – Michael Jackson, Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton and George Bush – for providing the inspiration for his staff writers.
I wish I had one more night, he said in reference to news that both Clinton and Bush were at a private conference in Toronto.
When I started the show, my hair was black, and the president was white, he said during a very excited, but final stand-up monologue.
But like the governorator, Leno will be back.
In late 2008, parent television company NBC announced that Leno would be hosting a new daily show – simply titled the “Jay Leno Show – at a much earlier time slot; Conan O Brien, host of NBC’s “The Late Show, which airs after Leno s, will take over the “Tonight Show on June 1.
In a touching passing of the baton, O Brien was Leno s final guest. He appeared more serious – and slightly nervous – than he does on his own show as he joked with Leno that he had big shoes to fill.
Don t count O Brien out just yet, however; he is a veteran comedian having earned his stripes as a writer on “The Simpsons and the much-vaunted “Saturday Night Live. Although he lacks Leno s down-to-earth charm, O Brien has 16 years of experience as the host of “The Late Show.
It has been a wild ride for the 59-year-old Leno who went from stand-up comedy routines to bit parts in television commercials to realizing his life-long ambition of succeeding the late great king of late night Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.
But in doing so, Leno would also spark a bitter feud that has lasted well over a decade. David Letterman, host of “Late Night with David Letterman, which aired immediately after “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, believed he was better-positioned to succeed Carson. When NBC announced in 1992 that it had secretly contracted Leno to succeed Carson months before he signed off the air, a livid Letterman absconded and joined CBS, which gave him his own late night format to compete with Leno. Who took over Letterman’s former job? Why O’Brien, of course.
Over the past 17 years, the differences between the two rival comedians could not be more stark.
Letterman is a better interviewer, having picked up the wit and sarcasm of a fielded journalist in a news production studio where he worked as a weatherman before launching his comedy career.
However, he sometimes comes across as acerbic, seen by some as unnecessarily harsh against those he doesn t like; he is stoic and merciless when he grills his guests. By comparison, Leno, who earned his grit by playing the comedy club circuit in the US, is more relaxed with his guests, but some have criticized him of wasting opportunities to dig out a good story.
Nevertheless, Leno had better guests on his show, many of whom were mainstays of contemporary pop culture and therefore appealed to younger audiences. While Letterman became a hit with industry critics, garnering far more Emmy Awards than his rival, Leno won the lion’s share of nightly viewers.
According to the Nielsen ratings system measuring audience viewership, an average of 5.5 million people watch Leno every night compared to Letterman’s 4.2 million.
While Letterman excels at stand-up routines, Leno has better sketches. Jaywalking, his signature series of walk-and-talks on the streets of Hollywood, have proven to be hilarious hits with the audience. In a move that has defined his 17-year tenure as host of the show, Leno even took some of the unsuspecting people he met during the Jaywalking segment and launched them into notoriety. (My bet is that we will soon see a Best of Jaywalking DVD release some time in the next few months)
Who could forget the zany woman with an annoying laugh who ended up tracking down the presidential candidates for a hug during the 2000 elections or the two college students who revealed they had nary an idea of US politics when they covered the Democratic and Republican conventions in 2000.
Then there was Headlines – Leno s takes on American (and sometimes global) print media and the trouble they get into when misspelling a headline, or awkwardly rephrasing a paragraph.
In the end, Leno signed out in the best way the host of America’s number one late talk and variety show could: he spent his last few moments in the theater as host of “The Tonight Show not with celebrities but with his own staff.
In a touching final ode to his “Tonight Show legacy, he introduced the 68 children of staff members who had met and married while working on his show.