Jay Leno gets the last laugh

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  May 29, 2009 at 10:01 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 29 (UPI) -- It's the end of an era -- but not really. Friday night, Jay Leno will be saying goodbye to the "Tonight Show" on NBC that he's hosted with reliable hilarity and unfailing good nature for almost exactly 17 years. Except, of course, Leno isn't going away or even leaving NBC. He'll simply be moving 90 minutes down the schedule to host a five-nights-a-week show at 10 p.m.

Pity Conan O'Brien. After so many years of playing wing-man and lower-ratings follower to Leno and five years of waiting in the wings as the anointed heir, he finally squeezes the old guy out only to end up further behind him than ever. Talk about an Oedipus complex.

Instead of getting a nightly reliable lead by coming directly after Jay, Conan will have to pick up the reins after a 30-minute disruption of local news has broken the attention span of viewers. The odds will be especially high that the traditional Jay-lovers who didn't stay up extra late for Conan won't bother to do so now either when they've had their regular, reliable-as-hot-chocolate, regular Leno fix at 10 p.m. Once again, Jay will have the last laugh.

The blue collar, easygoing, affable Jay is a far cry from the dry, more intellectual, laid-back Conan. Conan plays to an elitist, Starbucks latte-sipping crowd; Jay still exudes the down-home informality of McDonalds and Wal-Mart. While Conan has affinities with the comic style of Kelsey Grammer, Jay is Bob Hope all the way -- a super-hard-working professional who loves the applause, crams in the jokes stove-piped six stories high and keeps 'em coming.

Like Hope, Jay's professionalism and astonishing work ethic are his secret superpowers. He inherited "Tonight" when it had already been for generations the iconic comedy show of late night American television, raised to that position over 30 years by the pitch-perfect accuracy and intelligence of the legendary Johnny Carson.

But with the proliferation of cable TV, video, DVDs, TiVo and eventually YouTube over the past two decades, the "Tonight Show" should have gone the way of the traditional sitcom. The best it should have hoped for was to settle gracefully into the kind of super-late savvy and "cool" slot that Conan does so well. Or maybe it could have been forced to take a "long march" to the vast talk show wilderness of morning and afternoon TV to compete with long-in-the-tooth soap operas or "The View." The last thing anyone should have expected was that Jay would single-handedly keep it a remarkably unchanged juggernaut through all these years.

Jay's achievement is even more impressive because he wasn't just succeeding Johnny but taking on as well the supposedly far more cool and edgy David Letterman on CBS in direct competition. That was something Johnny never had to handle. Yet Jay consistently topped Letterman in numbers of viewers with a style that was much more convivial than Letterman's. Leno's comedy had a more gentle tone -- but that could be misleading, because when he went after a target like the incompetence of the Bush administration over Hurricane Katrina or the September 2008 Wall Street meltdown, Jay's zingers came faster than a time-on-target bombardment of heavy artillery -- and usually left the survivors feeling just as shell-shocked.

Now, instead of retiring gracefully into the Elysium Fields and rose red sunsets of Pleasantville, a 1950s TV heaven, Jay is instead off to conquer another supposedly "Mission Impossible" market. He aims to whip the prime-time medical and crime dramas on their home turf at 10 p.m.

It would be wise to bet on him here, too. More people are prone to watch TV at 10 p.m. than 11:30 p.m., and everyone loves Jay. His show is far cheaper to produce than ensemble dramas, which inevitably become far more expensive whenever they become hits because their stars keep raising their pay scales until they often put their own success stories out of business.

Jay had to replace Johnny, the biggest legend in American television. But Johnny was retiring and the succession was clear. Letterman was just a pretender to the throne. But Conan comes on board with Jay still very much in business. He's not going away, and he's in it for the long run -- as always.

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