“If you need me, I’ll be at the garage.”
That was the soundbyte NBC included from Jay Leno in the press release announcing the late-night staple’s retirement from The Tonight Show after 22 years as emcee of the iconic property. Jimmy Fallon will officially take over the Tonight chair starting in February 2014. But will Leno really walk away from two decades of late-night—most of it spent at No. 1—to go tinker with his cars?
“I would say the chances of Leno retiring are approximately zero,” says Alex Weprin, a senior editor at TV Newser. “He’s a notorious workaholic. Every weekend he’s in Las Vegas or some other city during standup after filming Tonight during the week. There’s no chance he’s going to retire. Not from television, especially.”
So, if he is not going to retire, what, then, becomes of Jay Leno?
At this point, it’s just speculation, but there are several viable options on the table. Does he move to Fox, as was rumored the first time he stepped down from Tonight for Conan O’Brien? Does he follow Conan’s lead and head to cable? Netflix? Exclusive broadcasts to old folks’ homes?
“I suspect the wooing has begun,” Weprin says.
A move to Fox is the obvious choice. The remarkable thing to remember here is that Leno is leaving hisTonight Show perch at No. 1, a feat that Conan O'Brien famously failed to sustain. Leno will bring a built-in audience with him wherever he chooses to go. “Whether or not you think he’s funny, he’s a force to be reckoned with,” says Andrew Kirell, a senior editor at Mediaite.
There’s one major hitch, however. Fox has never really launched a successful late-night show. It tried in the late '80s with Joan Rivers, but the show failed. Other attempts with Wilton North and Chevy Chase also bombed. Sure, there were rumblings that Leno would move to Fox when he handed over Tonight to O’Brien for the first time—and then more rumblings that O’Brien would roost there after Leno came back to 11:35 p.m.—but those talks fizzled.
At this point, with Jimmy Kimmel’s move to 11:35 p.m. only creating more competition, does Fox even want to get in the late-night game? After the Rivers failure, the network may be reluctant to try again, Weprin says. But Leno is a 22-year talk veteran, while Rivers was new to the platform. “He’s less of a risk than trying to launch a new property with a new host.”
Plus, Fox has the added advantage of starting its late-night lineup at 11 p.m., after its 10 p.m. newscast, instead of at 11:35 p.m. like its would-be competitors. Still, the network’s lack of late-night history is a major hurdle. One option, then, Weprin suggests, is following Arsenio Hall’s lead with his upcoming series and selling a show to syndication, to be bought by various stations. That takes the onus off of Fox executives to make the leap.
If not Fox, the speculation logically progresses to cable, where Conan O’Brien has set up shop at TBS and Chelsea Handler has carved a lucrative niche for herself at E!. There’s the notion that O’Brien and Handler appeal more to younger demographics and are therefore better suited for cable, but Leno usually beats his competition in the coveted 18 to 49 demographic as well. If a cable show is marketed to 25- to 54-year-olds, where Leno undeniably shines, he could really succeed there.
Variety’s Brian Lowry cheekily suggests that Leno could find a home at CNN, which is now headed by former NBC chief Jeff Zucker. Back in 2004, Zucker orchestrated the beginnings of the late-night musical chairs that took place in 2009, and, as Lowry says, “has enjoyed a front-row seat illustrating Leno’s work ethic.” That whole idea that Leno’s not young enough for cable? At CNN, “where more than half the audience is over 60, Leno—at 62, six months younger than ratings champ Bill O’Reilly—would fit right in.”
CNN may be one of the more out-there options. But is there a cable network that would bite? “What would pick him up?” says Kirell. “USA?” Conan already fills TBS’s late-night quota, and no other networks have really shown any indication of trying to rival him. A cable move would be smart, Kirell says, and “whoever wants to launch a late-night show would be wise to hire Jay Leno.” The problem: “I don’t think anyone is in the market for one.”
Sure, there are other options. Moving to Hulu like Larry King could give him free rein—but is that too much of a demotion from venerable Tonight? He could make a nice life for himself hitting the road on a comedy tour. With his reputation as a tireless worker, he’s dogged enough to turn that road into a financial windfall.
Much of the press surrounding this transition from Leno to Fallon highlights Fallon’s youth appeal, cartoonishly creating this idea that the only people watching Jay Leno have one foot in the grave and flip to his show only on commercials from NCIS re-runs. There’s a false sense that his older-skewing appeal could be a liability, but that’s all wrong. “It’s a stereotype with him,” Kirell says. “It’s overplayed. Sure late-night is transitioning younger with Kimmel and Fallon, but look at Letterman. I think Leno still has the appeal in every demo to make him a big commodity.”
A commodity, however, who will never again be as hot as he once was. Before Leno makes any move, swallowing that may be the biggest hurdle. “There’s no sugarcoating it,” Weprin says. “Whatever he does next is not going to be the Tonight show, which has long been the Holy Grail of talk shows.”
There’s no finding another Holy Grail.