Leno: the Dangerfield of late-night television?

By Chuck Barney

He doesn’t get the same respect as Johnny Carson or even David Letterman.

You may have heard that, on Friday, Jay Leno is bidding farewell to “The Tonight Show” after 17 highly successful years. What you haven’t heard is the kind of boisterous media hosannas that accompanied Johnny Carson’s departure from the same post in 1992.

There are good reasons for this.

First of all, Carson ruled the “Tonight Show” roost for a substantially longer period — 30 years — and for much of that stint he was pretty much the only game in town. Leno, on the other hand, exits a crowded late-night scene, populated by, among others, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart and Leno’s successor, Conan O’Brien. It’s a situation that naturally fosters divided loyalties.

Also, Leno isn’t leaving to start a reclusive kind of retirement that Carson did. In fact, he’s not really leaving at all. Starting next fall, he’ll host a new nightly show at 10 p.m. on NBC, which kind of drains his “Tonight Show” farewell of some emotional oomph.

But another key factor is at play: Even though Leno has dominated the late-night ratings for more than a decade, many critics and journalists who cover television never have regarded him as the true late-night king. They tend instead to bow at the feet of Letterman.

Consequently, Leno has become the Rodney Dangerfield of late-night hosts. He gets the big ratings, the top guests and the big bucks. But he just can’t get the respect.

Critics tend to view Leno as a top-rate stand-up comedian who sanded down the edges of his act in order to build mainstream appeal. His humor is considered more folksy and observational than most of his rivals. And it’s no accident that much of his fan base is made up of older viewers who either don’t get, or are turned off by, the edgier approach of Letterman and O’Brien.

Letterman is seen as a smirky smart-aleck who reinvented the late-night gig by bringing irony, self-parody and considerably more bite to the format. Letterman has a reputation of being funnier and more subversive — even though he has coasted on that reputation at times in recent years.

It’s also telling that most late-night bucks who have followed the footsteps of Leno and Letterman have tended to pattern their approaches after the latter. O’Brien, with his goofy antics and relentless self-mockery, is much more of a Letterman-type guy, and that’s one reason NBC should be a little nervous. Will Conan be able to woo the masses like his predecessor did?

On the other hand, maybe Letterman should be nervous. Now the distinction at 11:35 p.m. isn’t so clear-cut, and it’s easy to foresee a situation where viewers are torn between watching the new kid in the time slot or the aging veteran.

Meanwhile, Leno will make his move to 10 p.m., where he could set a new course for prime-time programming — or fail miserably.

XLeno’s final “Tonight Show” is at 11:35 p.m. Friday.

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