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.