How a man says goodbye is arguably just as important as the first impression he makes. And then there are those indefatigable men who cannot bear to leave whichever premises they shine best, unless perhaps jaws-of-life are implemented. Which brings us, as long as we’re invoking jaws, to recent noisy stirrings in the fitful saga of Jay Leno. I have known Leno for more than twenty five years, ever since his juggernaut jaw first began its unfathomable conquest of American Comedy. And, per ticking countdown on his current employment situation as host of the venerable Tonight Show, I do believe he wished at very least (with no small intrinsic agony) to make an exit less tumultuous than the entrance he made on the job sixteen springtimes ago, which bore marked resemblance to a backstage military coup.
“I’ve always been the underdog,” he has long averred. (This makes the winning forever sweeter, he will tell you, privately, maybe.)
That Johnny Carson clearly would have bequeathed his desk to David Letterman has never been lost on Leno—indeed, I am fairly sure it haunts him still, if just a little. When it was announced that he would peacefully abdicate his own version of The Tonight Show for a nightly prime time series beginning next fall, it called to mind a sweet placating letter he once shared with me, written to the then recently retired Carson during the thick of aftermath squabbling over whether NBC would unseat him in favor of keeping Letterman from bolting to another network. Sent after he had bumped into the great departed King at an awards ceremony, it dripped with self-flagellating chagrin and stands as a lost but essential peek into Leno conscientiousness:
“Dear Johnny: Just a little note to wish you good luck on your trip to Africa. I’m sure whatever dangerous situations or wild beasts you encounter couldn’t possibly be any stranger than what is going on at NBC. Have you heard the latest idea? Simulcast live: Dave on one side of the screen, me on the other. If there is one bright spot in all of this, it was being able to talk and have a few laughs with you at the American Teacher Awards. Seeing you smile at me when I walked into that green room, it meant more to me than anything that has happened before or since. I was extremely touched by your graciousness, considering how poorly everything at my end was handled. I was stupid and naïve and will never again allow anyone to handle my affairs for me. If you remember the story I told you backstage, I would like to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger’s words to me, ‘LENO, YOU ASSSSSSSSSHOLE.’ Yours truly, Jay Leno.”
Somehow I sense he vowed to never again lay himself open to such scorching consternation—whether from future action-hero governors or from professional brethren—even if it means removing himself from his beloved late night war games and entering an altogether new arena wherein he cannot possibly prevail every night of the week.
“I’ve always been the underdog,” he has long averred. (This makes the winning forever sweeter, he will tell you, privately, maybe.) “I’m a very great believer in low self-esteem,” he said just Tuesday morning during the NBC media conference wherein his newest job assignment was made official. And, of course, this move doesn’t exactly surprise those of us who vaguely understand the Leno psyche—certainly no more than would have a huffy defection to an opposing broadcast entity so as to wreak glib revenge on the network whose name he once suggested stood for Never Believe Your Contract. (When he all but came to inspect the plumbing at ABC a few weeks ago, by way of jovial guest-shot on the excellent Jimmy Kimmel Live program, Kimmel gave this sly semi-wishful-if-impossible introduction: “For nearly 17 years, he’s hosted The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Soon, he will leave that job and retire quietly, never to be heard from again . . .”)
“I’d love to know how Jay made that decision,” says late-night eminence Peter Lassally, producer to a pantheon (Carson, Letterman, Tom Snyder, and today’s cheeky Craig Ferguson). “I don’t believe he did it to play good company man, because I’m sure he felt the network knifed him.”
To that end, it could be argued that NBC is merely upholding its unique tradition of knifing its late night royals, beginning with the steadfast squeezing-out of King John William Carson (dagger-point era, circa 1990-92), followed instantly by the shunning of noble Prince Letterman-in-waiting, followed by the 2004 edict that jolly Lord Leno—no matter his high-flying ratings—would have to vanquish his throne five years hence to make way for nimble jester Conan O’Brien, who (despite smiling acquiescence) cannot be altogether pleased that his larger-than-life predecessor will be usurping topical thunder ninety minutes ahead of him Every Single Night for untold years to come.
Perseverance, you see, is the Leno raison d’être, which is why insiders rightfully believe that he will never leave the air until Letterman goes at least one day ahead of him, because Dave lives in Jay’s craw and vice-versa, but I think there’s a weird mutual love there as well as a psychic tangle knotted so insidiously as to be ever fully fathomed. “I just heard CBS is going to be running Letterman at 9:59PM,” Leno eerily cracked at his news conference (and again in his monologue that night), as if to declare their loggerheads forever in play. (Letterman, when informed Monday of the Leno prime-time shift, reportedly gave a nonplussed “Oh really . . .”—then changed the subject. Nevertheless, on his own Late Show Tuesday night—“still on at 11:35!” he puckishly asserted at the outset—he cited the summit earlier that day between president-elect Obama and Al Gore, noting that “the meeting went well. Obama offered him the ten o’clock slot!”)
Indeed, what with Leno being Leno at a new and “decent hour,” the historic dark splendor of The Tonight Show (such as it is anymore)—and what has now manifested as the Silver Age of Late Night essentiality, wherein all these shows burst with fine merit—will be appreciably devalued, if not made somewhat superfluous. If this represents Leno prevailing by way of nuclear strike against the nocturnal genre itself, he would prefer not to think about it, I think. Instead, he shrugged and cited our disastrous economy as great (patriotic?) reason to move himself up in the nighttime: “People now have to go to bed earlier, get up earlier . . .”
And thus, well, he may have prevailed—again—but, I promise you, Leno will still cling to his perfectly honed underdoggedness no matter what time he shows up for work in the new nightshift. “Will we lose against CSI the second week [we’re on the air]?” he said Tuesday. “Sure. It’s hard to go up against [dramatic series dialogue like] ‘ Your dream became a nightmare . . .’” Oddly, when I heard Leno deliver that intentionally cheesy line, my mind drifted directly toward Conan’s suddenly transformed lot and to a telephone exchange he had with Johnny Carson four years ago upon learning that he would succeed Leno as the next host of The Tonight Show. Said a humbled Conan to the King in absentia, “Listen, I’m going to do my best to take care of this franchise.” To which Carson, with legendary wryness, responded, “That’s quite a franchise, isn’t it?” Conan would later tell me, “You could almost hear his eyes roll.”
Bill Zehme co-wrote Jay Leno’s bestselling autobiography Leading with My Chin and is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’. He is at work on the first definitive biography of Johnny Carson—Carson The Magnificent—for Random House.