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Leno’s Last Stand (Up)



Published: Thu, February 6, 2014 @ 12:05 a.m.

Staff and wire report

BURBANK, Calif.

Jay Leno, as affably efficient backstage as he is in front of the camera, avoids waxing poetic about his 22-year “Tonight Show” run that draws to a close tonight.

Instead, he relies on numbers to tell the story. Leno’s tenure is second only to Johnny Carson’s 30 years; “Tonight” was No. 1 among viewers when he took it over and will be when he hands it off to Jimmy Fallon; he’ll have taped more shows than any predecessor, Carson included, with the final and 4,610th one.

In the Youngstown market, Leno has been a ratings champion for 21 WFMJ-TV since day one.

“It has been a pleasure having ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ on our program lineup for 22 years,” said Jack Grdic, station manager. “Those 22 years represent 88 sweeps periods, and I can count on one hand the few times Jay ever lost the time period.”

Grdic said the show was popular with local and national advertisers, a fact he attributes to the host’s appeal to viewers of all ages.

Leno’s work ethic also helped keep the show a money-producer, said Grdic.

“One aspect that is often overlooked is how hard Jay Leno works,” he said. “We rarely have repeats with ‘The Tonight Show,’ and having a program with fresh content 45 to 47 weeks out of the year is an advantage over competing shows.”

THIS TIME IT’s FOR KEEPS

Perhaps Leno’s dry assessment of his own success stems from a case of deja vu. After all, he lived through this before when he surrendered “Tonight” in 2009 to Conan O’Brien, only to reclaim it after NBC’s messy bobbling of the transition and O’Brien’s lackluster ratings.

But this time it’s different, Leno contends, offering another hard fact: The older generation has to make way for the younger one.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II can keep 65-year-old Prince Charles cooling his heels. Leno doesn’t have the power to do the same with Fallon, 39. The “Late Night” host is moving the show from its longtime Burbank home, near Johnny Carson Park and off Bob Hope Drive, to its New York birthplace when he debuts as host Feb. 17.

“It’s been a wonderful job, but this is the right time to leave,” said Leno, whose once-dark mop of hair is now a neatly groomed silver. “I’m at that age where I don’t really listen to the [current] music anymore. I’m not a big tweet guy. A 63-year-old guy reading Miley Cyrus’ tweets is a little creepy. Move on.”

He makes the argument with the precision of one of his reliable monologue jokes, just as he did when he claimed to understand NBC’s decision to evict him for O’Brien — even as he reamed the network on the air.

The years between then and now have seen changes come at a quickening pace, with an ever-more crowded late-night arena and a shifting media environment. Fallon’s parody music bits with contemporaries such as Justin Timberlake are perfect cut-and-pastes for sites such as YouTube that drive young viewer attention and offer new potential for ad sales as network revenues shrink.

In 2012, “Tonight” laid off 20 staffers and Leno took a 10 percent pay cut. The show has averaged a 3.5 million nightly viewership in the past 12 months, which pales in comparison with the double-digit audiences it once claimed.

WFMJ’s Grdic expects the show’s success will continue after Leno’s departure.

“I am not at all concerned about the transfer of hosting to Jimmy Fallon,” said Grdic. “Fallon’s show wins the local late-night time slot and I expect him to perform quite well. And he will also bring along some younger demos.”

Grdic said moving the show to New York will make it “more regional in feel” for Youngstown audiences.

LOOKING BACK AND AHEAD

Leno is planning to expand the comedy club gigs he never abandoned and various outlets for his automotive passion, including the Web show “Jay Leno’s Garage,” and the magazine and newspaper pieces he writes. He insists his schedule won’t include another late-night show, which could only be what he calls “Tonight Light.”

“It’s hard to re-create this moment. It’s like the fighter coming back. You got to be world champion, so it’s kind of silly,” he said.

“Tonight,” which launched in 1954, was shaped by original host Steve Allen and nurtured by successors Jack Paar and Carson. Following them represented the pinnacle for comedians, and it was the role Leno coveted and won upon Carson’s 1992 retirement.

His first few months were marred by Leno’s longtime manager Helen Kushnick, who, as his first “Tonight” executive producer, was blamed for instigating nasty guest booking wars and fired in what then was characterized as one of TV’s biggest publicity nightmares.

Worse was to come, when NBC’s “Tonight” host succession plan hatched in 2004 went awry. Leno, who stoically endured insults from Jimmy Kimmel and others who portrayed him as having stolen O’Brien’s job, says the past is past. CBS’ Letterman, who once jockeyed with Leno for Carson’s throne, echoed that.

“How long can I carry this with me?” he told Howard Stern during a SiriusXM interview Friday. He spoke of calling Leno when his second “Tonight” departure was announced, their first conversation in several years, and tipped his hat to his rival when Stern asked if Leno sounded sad.

“I wouldn’t say sad. There’s nothing to be sad about. He’s had a tremendous career there,” Letterman said, graciously.

LEGACY AND MEMORIES

Leno’s final show will feature Billy Crystal, his first “Tonight” guest, and Garth Brooks. Leno’s legacy — a word that makes him squirm — might include expanding the show’s opening monologue; a memorable mea culpa from Hugh Grant after he was arrested in 1995 with a prostitute; the first interview with a sitting president, Barack Obama, in 2009; and the “Jaywalking” fixture, which trips up people with simple questions.

Leno’s favorite Q&A is that those queried about how Mount Rushmore was formed often reply, “erosion.” His head-shaking reaction: “The wind and rain not only picked four presidents, it picked four of our greatest presidents!”

Was he the most daring, most innovative, most surprising force in late-night? His critics and even clear-eyed admirers said no, and Leno doesn’t argue with them — but that’s not what counts, he adds: “Whether you like the host or not, you cannot say it’s not been a success. A football team might not have the most sophisticated players but can win the Super Bowl.”

Leno cannot be called unsophisticated but he is determinedly un-show biz. He makes note of his modest New England upbringing, the high school friends he remains close to, his three-decade marriage to wife, Mavis, and the many “Tonight” staffers who remained loyal throughout his tenure.

WFMJ’s Grdic can personally attest to Leno’s humble and sincere personality.

“I have had an opportunity to meet Jay at affiliate meetings and he is approachable and a nice guy,” said Grdic. “When my father (former WFMJ General Manager John Grdic) retired a couple of years ago, Jay even sent a video ‘good luck’ piece to him that we played at his retirement party.”

This story combines reporting from Lynn Elber of the Associated Press and Vindicator staff writer Guy D’Astolfo.


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