Sometime Thursday afternoon, Jay Leno will tape his 4,610th and final episode as host of the Tonight Show. He'll chat with Billy Crystal. Garth Brooks will play a tune. "Stick around for Jimmy Fallon!" Leno will yell above the credits. And just like that, 22 years of television history will be gone.
Less than 24 hours later, Leno will touch down in Tampa Bay to begin the next chapter. It starts with four rare standup shows in Florida, including Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Friday and Clearwater's Capitol Theatre on Sunday — his first as a former NBC employee, and his first here in as long as anyone can remember.
Leno's Floridian getaway comes in the eye blink of a window between his life as the most popular late-night host on television and his new life as just another comic working the road.
But then, "popular" is a curious word to use when dissecting Jay Leno. In 22 years, he never became a towering influence like Johnny Carson or David Letterman. He does not tickle the Internet's fancy like Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon. At 63, his legacy is murky: He is appreciated but not acclaimed; respected but not idolized. Critics shrug him off, and some outright loathe him. Yet this weekend's performances sold out almost immediately, proof that his most loyal viewers love him now as much as ever. He's the people's champ, the one they all go to bed with, and for now, at least, he still has their attention.
It's a long flight from Burbank to Tampa Bay. This is where Jay Leno's new life will begin. But where does he go after this?
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Unraveling the secret of Leno's appeal takes some work. But let's begin with a few numbers.
In January, the Harris Poll, which annually tabulates these things, named Leno the fifth most popular figure on television. It's an odd list, with Ellen DeGeneres at the top and Leno wedged between aging CBS hunks Mark Harmon (No. 2) and Tom Selleck (No. 7), but also between satirical icons Jon Stewart (No. 3) and Stephen Colbert (No. 6). Leno has made the list nearly every year since 1994, a feat bested only by Oprah.
But wait, there's more. In 2012, 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair conducted their own poll asking viewers to pick the late-night host most likely to make them laugh. Leno won in a runaway, with 24 percent of the vote — the same percentage as Jimmy Fallon and Conan O'Brien combined.
Leno's popularity comes at stark odds with how critics see him — he has won only two Emmys, and one of those was for a Web series. Though his comedic instincts are formidable — his talent for pure joke delivery is unmatched — his material, by design, typically hews toward the middle of the road. Jokes about Amtrak, Viagra and Jenny Craig aren't exactly cutting edge, but for 22 years they've done the job.
"If you look at the monologue, for every smart, insightful joke, there's a goofy joke and a silly joke and a fun joke and a clever joke," Leno recently told 60 Minutes. "That's the trick. You try to have something for everybody."
Critics tend to cringe at such middlebrow ambitions. Yet when you talk to his fans, it's eerie how closely they echo Leno's words.
"I like the fact that he does all sorts of mainstream humor, not just political or just sarcastic," said longtime fan Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. "He does something for everybody."
It's a critical component of Leno's well-honed man-of-the-people persona. The denim wardrobe and classic-car obsession are only the most obvious examples. He's the only late-night talk show host who emerges from the curtains each night to slap fives and shake hands with the studio audience. And he's the only host who also holds down a weekly standup gig, a long-running Sunday residency at a club in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
More than 30 years ago, St. Petersburg promoter Rob Douglas booked Leno — who was, even at that point, one of the top comics in the nation — for a one-nighter at the old Tierra Verde Island Resort. "I always thought of him as an everyman," Douglas said. "I still have an impression of him being a very down-to-earth, blue-collar everyman, who has the capacity to indulge some pretty interesting and expensive hobbies.
"The Jaywalking segments are a great example — just him being able to walk up with his hand out to someone on the street. I got that impression when I got to meet him and drive him around — he was very affable and funny, always ready to crack a joke and laugh quickly. I don't get a sense that he's any different now than he was all those years ago."
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Jay Leno may be the same man he was in 1980, and when he replaced Johnny Carson in 1992. It's the late-night landscape that has changed.
The Tonight Show is still the highest-rated late-night program on network TV, and in many ways, it's still the gold standard. The reason it has sparked so many public feuds, so much sniping between former friends, is that when you host the Tonight Show, you're not just hosting the Tonight Show. You're hosting the idea of what an American talk show can be.
So when hosts talk about putting their own unique spin on a talk show, the implication is: Here's how my show will be different from Jay Leno's.
Fallon has said that his Tonight Show may resemble Steve Allen's, with "weird jokes" and goofy, left-field humor. Kimmel famously idolized Letterman, as did O'Brien. "That's a Kimmel quote: We're all just trying to be Letterman, especially in his early days," said comic Pete Holmes, whose O'Brien-produced talk show airs midnights on TBS.
Over the years, there have been moments when Leno's Tonight Show felt like the most culturally relevant show on the air. The Hugh Grant interview, for instance. ("What the hell were you thinking?") A rowdy live episode from Boston after the Cheers finale is still a fascinating watch. It made national news when comic Bobcat Goldthwait — who would go on to direct episodes of Jimmy Kimmel Live — lit his Tonight Show chair on fire. And in 2009, Leno became the first late-night host to interview a sitting American president.
But as times evolved, these moments grew fewer and farther between. Think about it: Can you even name the last Tonight Show bit to go viral? To its final day, the show remains almost entirely structured for a fixed television audience, while others court a savvier, more wired world.
"They didn't have that when Johnny Carson did the Tonight Show," said Fallon, who debuts as host on Feb. 17. "They didn't have the Internet. Twitter didn't exist 10 years ago, or when Jay started. I'm coming in at a really good time, a really fun time, a really social-media time."
In interviews, Leno seems tired of trying to keep up with the much younger Joneses. "I like playing to my age group," he said on Jerry Seinfeld's Web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. When Today's Matt Lauer asked about Fallon's high-energy collaborations with Justin Timberlake, Leno replied: "I can't do that. I write jokes." And he sounds more comfortable leaving NBC in 2014 than he was in 2009. "Last time I was told; this time I was asked," he told Ellen DeGeneres.
Still, if Leno is trying to take the high road, it remains scattered with signs of the competitive, workaholic spirit that fueled his high-profile dustups with Letterman and O'Brien. As he told 60 Minutes: "I think I probably would have stayed if we didn't have an extremely qualified young guy ready to jump in. … It's always nice to keep working."
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For now, Leno's return to full-time standup will open doors that have been closed for two decades.
When he agreed to headline the Van Wezel's annual Foundation gala on Friday, it set off a mad scramble among other Florida theaters. Bobby Rossi, Ruth Eckerd Hall's director of entertainment, has tried to book a performance by Leno "every year he's been on." He immediately eyed Leno as a "magical," high-profile act for the smaller, newly renovated Capitol Theatre. It became such a hot ticket that during a pre-sale for Ruth Eckerd Hall members, "it was gone before some levels of membership even got to buy it," Rossi said. "Every board member was stopping me in the hallway: 'I gotta get my dad tickets.' " A second Capitol Theatre show was added for March 29; it sold out just as quickly.
Leno, of course, doesn't need to schlep 2,500 miles for a string of one-nighters — he's worth about $350 million, according to celebrity networth.com. But he's still a comic, and this is what comics do. Besides, last week on Ellen, Leno said his new workaday life may sharpen his chops as a standup.
"When you do late-night TV, you do different jokes in the same place every night," he said. "When you're on the road as a comedian, you do the same jokes in a different place every night. And the fun thing — and you know this — is you come out here and you tell a joke, and then you go, 'Ah, you know, that joke was good, but I could have added this on it.' So when you work on the road, Monday night you can do the joke, Tuesday you can work it, Wednesday you can change it, and you can take what was a three- or four-second joke, pull it out, make it breathe a little bit."
It's ironic that Leno chose Florida, America's cradle of retirement, as the first stop on his road to a rebooted career. "Knowing Jay, he's not going to stop working," Rossi said. "This is his life, comedy."
He will let his jokes breathe. He will come to the people, and they will come to him. The cameras are off, but Leno will forge ahead, determined as ever, still comfortable in his own stone-washed skin.
"It speaks really well to his work ethic," said the Van Wezel's Bensel, who on Friday will help present Leno a key to the city of Sarasota. "To immediately jump on a plane and come out and continue working? This is something he loves to do: Talk to people."