Today marks the final episode of Jay Leno's Tonight Show, and it's like deja vu all over again.
As we all know, we've been through this before. Leno's first farewell was in 2009, when he was simply known as the guy who took a job away from David Letterman rather than the guy who took away a job from David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. Way back when, I actually attended one of the shows in Leno's (first) final week. I was interning for People magazine and had been sent to cover Mel Gibson's appearance on the show. I don't remember what Mel said, but I do remember the sense of being at something historic, even though NBC was moving Leno to primetime, in an effort to keep him under the peacock's control. Alas, by the beginning of the following year, Leno's goodbye from the Tonight Show felt more ignominious than historic.
Leno, through some fault of his own, has never allowed himself to have a meaningful goodbye. In 2009, he was just moving to an earlier time slot. In 2014, he goes out after having been vilified twice over. Even if you're not a fan of Leno's—and we're not, really—his exit should be some sort of cultural event. Guests have gotten emotional, and surely his (large) core group of fans will miss him, but the feeling of cultural nostalgia that happens when something like Leno's reign ends isn't there. We've been here before.
Leno's goodbye this time has been met in the media by something of a collective shrug. "Here’s a guy who has hosted 'The Tonight Show' for almost 22 years and no one cares that he’s leaving," Mike Ryan wrote at the Huffington Post in a defense of Leno, which is something of a worthwhile enterprise. You may not agree with his joke targets—he loved hitting Bill Clinton—but Leno did his job serviceably for a long time. Jeff Jensen at Entertainment Weekly has written a piece entitled, "Jay Leno deserves a dignified 'Tonight' exit," tackling Leno's 60 Minutes goodbye interview. Jensen's piece pairs interestingly with another one Entertainment Weekly put out in this Leno lead up: "'Big Jaw' vs. the World: A history of Jay Leno hate."
The truth of the matter is, while there may have been more sympathy toward the pre-Conan-affair Leno, the goodbyes weren't really fawning then, either. "If Leno rarely approached his predecessor's heights, if he did not advance or improve or in any significant way re-imagine the brand, he did not destroy it either," Robert Lloyd wrote at the Los Angeles Times , referring to Leno's stewardship of what many still considered to be Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Leno was always the Goliath to Letterman's David. Back then, Sam Anderson of New York wondered what happens to Dave now that his perfect foe is gone. "The whole thing felt less like a question of programming than an elaborate social experiment designed to measure, very precisely, some fundamental aspect of the American soul," Anderson wrote of Leno and Letterman's initial competition for the Tonight show. "On one side—Los Angeles, duty, convention, comfort, brightness, professionalism, and the friendly smirk. On the other—New York, rebellion, innovation, elitism, darkness, self-sabotage, and the scowl."
Reviews of Leno's first last show were mixed. Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker said "ooof" to Leno's O.J. jokes, but added: "toward the end, a different Leno was on display. Instead of the mighty joke-machine he prides himself on being, Leno allowed some nice, non-sappy sentiment to fill his final moments. He talked about how some staffers had met, married, and had children during his Tonight Show tenure… and then brought those offspring onstage. Sixty-eight young people of varying ages, smiling and waving." That last moment even got Gawker to turn off the snark. Foster Kamer wrote: "It was sweet, cute, and kind of inspired. Credit where credit's due: to not be a grandstanding, pompous asshole after years of being a proficient late-night host, might be an accomplishment in it of itself. Or maybe Johnny Carson just set the precedent."
Still, Leno didn't go out with at least some animosity in his direction. Writing at Videogum, Gabe Delahaye savaged Leno: "Jay’s departure on Friday was subdued, boring, and completely anti-climactic. Again, I still don’t really watch the show, but you could just feel it. The pervasive unimportance of it all. Jay Leno’s mark on entertainment is a grease-stained slide." At VH1, the kid stunt was deemed "creepy."
Once he got past that initial run of on-air sniping at NBC (sniping that was fairly in keeping with late-night hand-biting traditions across the board), there hasn't been much of an impression that Leno is meddling with the turnover of Tonight Show duties to Jimmy Fallon, even if, as Josef Adalian noted at Vulture, you can read some bitterness into his farewell interviews. Ultimately, there's no cause for overt animosity towards Jay this time around. We're simply left with the fatigue that we've memorialized this show before. Goodbye, again, some more.