Jay Leno left NBC’s The Tonight Show after 22 years Thursday night with a farewell that included old friends Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks and – the one big stunt – a large surprise ensemble of guests (Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian, Jack Black) singing novelty lyrics to “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music.
At the end, Leno teared up and choked up at all the memories, and finally told Brooks to play out the hour with something upbeat.
It was all very nice.
That sounds condescending, “nice,” but it isn’t meant to be.
It is more a word chosen because its meaning is elastic enough that it can be stretched quite a ways before it reaches the fact that I never really enjoyed Leno on Tonight.
I just didn’t find him all that funny.
In the days leading up to the finale, several commentators pointed out that Leno, despite his huge ratings, was not a favorite with television critics. (I raise my hand.) And there was, in this home stretch, a generally if vaguely expressed sentiment cropping up in the media that could be translated as “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
I have trained myself over the years never to let my thoughts take such violent expression. I wouldn’t want a door to hit anyone on the way out, not even Charlie Sheen. But did I mind that the door had been opened? That Leno was heading for it? No.
What didn’t I “get” about Leno? His chortling eagerness to please, to seem pleased. Yes, of course he was an entertainer, and a host. Should he have been more like David Letterman? Isn’t one David Letterman plenty? But something always felt out of proportion with Leno, as if he were a clown who bounded in for a children’s birthday party when in fact the children had already gone to bed.
I also wished Leno could be things he was not: absurdist, ironic, deadpan, cynical. Hip, whatever that means precisely. He was not like his replacement, Jimmy Fallon, with his fine, crinkly sense of humor – especially skilled at comedy that ventured beyond standup.
But that, perhaps, isn’t fair – you might as well fault a battleship for not being Noah’s ark or, come to think of it, fault Leno for not being as good as the revered Johnny Carson.
If anything, I enjoyed Leno more than I ever did Carson, whom I recall as a tanned, leathery leprechaun drumming a pencil.
And, to his credit, Leno was dependable, determined, likable, hard-working, unassuming, positive, sturdy, energetic, pleasant for a long stretch of years in a format that’s ridiculous. (Why waste time on opening with a monologue, which usually generates only a few laughs? Why wear a suit, and sit before a backdrop of a city skyline? Why, in this age of viral video and the Internet, isn’t the night’s broadcast broken down into a series of discreet packages, like bouillon cubes, and dropped piecemeal into social media throughout the day?)
Jay Leno was nice.