For 30 years Johnny Carson was TV mid America. The affable guy who could appeal to cow town folks yet fawn over generation gap guests or trendy stars of the moment. All late night alumni who followed him weren't just less worthy because of his widespread appeal, but because he had better talent booked from the Big Bang of retro pop culture unequaled and unsurpassed in millennial showbiz. He wasn't just a tough act to follow. His tenure required an easy going joker to sell subtle bedtime monolog comedy, not a wise guy waiting in the wings to turn it into a variety hour for irreverent humor. Instead of a hipster, it needed a foil on the cutting edge, an underdog most likely to fail.
By the time Jay Leno came into his own in the 90s, he was that Rocky of comedians. His career was starting to play out like the typical comic everyman with bit parts in films, TV sitcoms and gigs on Letterman that kept his future star power above the line. That led to filling in for Johnny as a sub host. And well, the rest was history. Those who see his victory in the late night wars as cutthroat deny the struggles of a voweled surname persona in Hollywood. If Jay had to fight so hard for the NBC brass ring only to still lose it in the end, his image came across as too ethnic for The Tonight Show and suit bean counters devalued or underrated him for it. They still do. And that's why he's gone.
How else could he be number one in the ratings for over two decades and still be unappreciated by the network? As not just anyone knows, fame and fortune out west in the dream factory is not always about talent alone. It can depend upon social fate and whether the right people like you and will let you make it. Against the odds, Jay got the breaks and beat sore loser competitors to rule late night talk in its swan song years. But if he were a Smith or Jones more likeable to smug fly over state critics, he would have been treated more fairly and not had his watch put out to pasture or patronized like a showbiz scrub fill-in not folksy enough for blue bloods who miss the mighty Carson art.
With the ageist factor a given, statistics on some ethnics in Hollywood read like a reserved quota for segregationist exclusion. American media loves its mixed half breeds. But full blooded off white middleman get marginalized for a career range of populist limitations. Leno never went far in movies and a talk show was his best chance to make it. Yet if Jay was of all Southern European decent and not half, he'd have experienced the small time career treadmill route of Dom Irrera, one of the most deserving comedic talents never to land a prime time show he could bank on. If there was only one Jay Leno controversial in his success, it was all that TV standards and practices would allow.
While arbiters of demographic taste send a message that a measure of sustained media relevancy is attributable to amount of youth or rate of PC skin color, market research lost in translation is that late night TV viewership is the negated, neglected realm of old souls, night owls and mature folks who can't sleep. Kids too busy with their Internet pastime gadgets won't crown his successor. Targeting youth alone ignores those who grew up with The Tonight Show and will miss its old school staying power. What's more, fan backlash combined with fickle entertainment options can often make modern TV program loyalty an OCD/ADD nightmare in the age of 24/7 digital alternatives.
Baited by tabloid media to hold a grudge, Leno has remained gracious in rooting for a seamless transition. But that doesn't change the fact that his forced retirement was about a lot more than ageism. If we look back on Leno's star in the late night universe, he was cast as an outsider unworthy of due respect and beset with the task of following in the footsteps of a pioneer legend. His rise to the top and consistent number one rating made him the right man for the job despite what he had to go through. But make no mistake, there's no consolation. Late night TV will never be the same again, as alienating older audiences who prefer TV airwaves to interactive multimedia is a forlorn bequest.
The irony in this media guard changing departure is that Jay leaves Tonight with more shows credited in his stunted 22 year span as a beleaguered and begrudged host than in Carson's three decade reign. Leno may not have had a Hollywood golden age talent pool to work with as guest support, but he took a classic TV nightspot slot and made it last through thick and thin, taking it on his famous chin as the pariah whipping boy of late night also-rans whose innuendo insults he refused to fuel or acknowledge. He kept it classy when insecure competition around him in the wake of his Tonight Show champ midst couldn't deal with his no. 1 run on the iconic show that they all lost out on.
The unexpected poignancy of Leno's farewell week of shows displayed a gracious old world humility that may be lost on millennial newcomers intent on turning Tonight into a late night speed freak comedy hour for kids. Sign off tears and celebrity reminiscence were a genuine reflection of the bittersweet impropriety of taking your final curtain call before your time to make way for the slim narrow demographic of an ageist makeover. But then the dramatic buildup and payoff of his last show was proof that Leno was more beloved by America than just business minded suits who sent him packing would have liked to admit. And his class act goodbye bow was a tribute to his talk show legacy.
Jim Fallon is a slickly engaging host to inherit Tonight and take over in the show's move back to NY. But if he only manages a niche core Nielsen share, there will be consumer flight payback for filtering NBC's flagship talk brand so future youth is served. When Jay's post talk show standup road show travels grow old in time, he will be in demand again as a proven TV personality. If lured to a comeback, he should demand that his new bosses undo the tactless preemption of his career by catering exclusively to mature fans that media forgot, dissed baby boomers who made TV show hits in the first place in the good old days when no one was ever too old, too nice or too ethnic to endure.