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Jay Leno may overshadow Conan O'Brien's 'Tonight Show'

Forget Rodney Dangerfield; Jay Leno is the guy in Hollywood who gets no respect. You can feel it now, even as he winds up his last show tonight in the big chair of the Tonight Show, the greatest talk program in the history of show business. Past Tonight Show leaders are hailed as seminal figures in television: Steve Allen as the irrepressibly brilliant man of all talents; Jack Paar as the compelling, volatile storyteller; Johnny Carson as the smooth, spot-on king and kingmaker. But how will Leno, 58, be remembered? As the guy who got Hugh Grant to apologize on the air for picking up a hooker? The man who brought the Dancing Itos to pop culture history?

Part of this problem is of Leno's own making. He started his Tonight Show career under a cloud, for the way he outmaneuvered David Letterman to succeed Carson after establishing his career with well-regarded appearances on Letterman's NBC show (to say nothing of the way his then-manager, Helen Kushnick, abused and alienated Hollywood until Leno had to fire her).

After that moment — exemplified by a scene in Bill Carter's excellent book The Late Shift, in which Leno secretly listened in to a conference call among NBC executives about the late-night transition — Leno was forever the backstabbing, hacky populist, while Letterman was the pained, creative talent.

Now, at a time when he should be basking in 14 years at the top of the late-night ratings, Leno faces whispers over the way he outmaneuvered NBC to take over the 10 p.m. time slot this fall. The move seems to undercut his successor, Conan O'Brien, while threatening the network's relationship with its affiliates.

That may explain why this week's farewell tour for Leno doesn't feel like much of a goodbye. An infamous workaholic — one person who knows him told me he was so miserable during his one European vacation with his wife that he came back early — he won't be off TV even half a year before his prime-time return.

Imagine the impact for Leno if Carson had vaulted into prime time back in 1993, when the Tonight Show was faltering in the ratings against a resurgent Letterman and the young host's reputation in Hollywood was at its worst. No wonder Carson never went back to his old show after retiring; instead, he visited Letterman's show twice.

So, in contrast to Carson's finale week, studded with celebrities and a tearful serenade from Bette Midler, Leno tonight gives us his successor, O'Brien, and singer-songwriter James Taylor.

For Leno, a guy who never met a goal he couldn't overwhelm with his insane work ethic, this all feels like little more than a pause before he resumes his relentless campaign to outdistance his own lack of legacy by sheer force of will.

Regardless of how it all turns out, it will make for some seriously compelling television.

Five favorite Jay Leno moments

Barack Obama visits Leno (March 19, 2009): The first time a sitting president ever visited a late-night show in person only proved that someone should have done it sooner (but left the Special Olympics joke at home). Obama came off as relaxed, witty and charming, while Leno got another groundbreaking pop culture moment on his air.

Hugh Grant comes clean (July 10, 1995): With one question — "What the hell were you thinking?" — Leno cemented his ratings dominance over Letterman, turned a career-ending arrest by Grant into a cheeky joke and established a long history of allowing controversial celebs to try to save their public images by submitting to a few moments on his couch (Exhibit Z: Monday's twitchy appearance by self-described "Octo-Mel" Gibson).

Arnold Schwarzenegger announces governor's bid

(Aug. 6, 2003): It felt surreal, watching the star of the Terminator movies announce a serious bid for the California governor's race from the heart of showbiz culture. But the spectacle made the front pages of every newspaper in the country and gave Leno enough space with Republicans for years' worth of George Bush jokes.

A fictional Leno secretly listens in to NBC conference call (1996): There were no paparazzi when it happened. So HBO's TV movie version of The Late Shift book is the closest we'll get to seeing Leno crouch in a closet and listen to NBC executives discussing who should succeed Johnny Carson, with Daniel Roebuck as the lantern-jawed comic.

Bobcat Goldthwait sets Leno's guest chair on fire (May 9, 1994): Letterman had the reputation for awkward on-screen encounters, so it was notable for Leno to suffer a rare moment of reality when comic Goldthwait squirted lighter fluid on the guest chair and set it on fire. Goldthwait got banned from the show for his trouble, simultaneously earning a spot in TV talk show history.

Past hosts

Steve Allen (1954-1957) Hosted the show from its start as a local talk/variety series in New York. Left a year after getting his own prime-time show.

Jack Paar (1957-1962) A sharp interviewer known for his volatility, Paar tearfully quit the show in 1960 after a joke was cut from the broadcast, only to return six months later with the classic line "… As I was saying."

Johnny Carson (1962-1992) As cool and unruffled as Paar was emotional, Carson developed a noncontroversial style, trimming his workweek to the point that talent such as Bob Newhart, Joan Rivers and Leno could build careers by steady work as guest hosts on the show.

Watch it

Jay Leno's final Tonight Show airs at 11:35 tonight on WFLA-Ch. 8.

Jay Leno may overshadow Conan O'Brien's 'Tonight Show' 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 9:02pm]

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