I’ll say it: Jay Leno is my hero.
I didn’t watch him every night. I know he isn’t cutting-edge; more like a rounded butter knife. I’m a Jimmy Fallon fan, and I think Fallon will make a terrific “Tonight Show” host.
But within the confines of the entertainment industry, Jay’s conduct this week is about as good role-model behavior as you’re going to find: He’s weathered the indignities of Hollywood, he’s survived some serious scrapes, and now he’s exiting with (mostly good-natured) humor and grace.
True, Leno’s blows have long been cushioned by his enormous salary. Still, in a business driven by ego, his ego and reputation were bruised more than once, as network executives clumsily played a contract-and-speculation game. Step aside, Jay, despite the fact that you’re leading in ratings. Set yourself up for failure with a thankless 10 p.m. slot. Take back the “Tonight Show,” looking like the bad guy, then give it up again because it’s time for someone younger to take over.
Throughout all of these “Tonight Show” wars – including the brief and clumsy Conan O’Brien affair – I always had sympathy for Leno, so often maligned as too middle-America-comfortable to deserve anybody’s true love. Why shouldn’t he cling to the prized job in his field? Why shouldn’t he play hardball when everyone else in Hollywood does, too?
Sure, Leno has made fun of NBC at every opportunity these last few weeks. That’s how NBC comedy works. “30 Rock” made jokes about the network relentlessly, and it was always a favored child. Leno had long been a bête noir, yet he agreed, in the midst of this week’s “Tonight Show” speculation, to film a “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” sketch in which he “sang” operatically about the impending changes.
I know the Hollywood press slammed it, but I thought it made both of them look wistful and sweet. If only the folks from “Today” could be half as sympathetic.
According to The New York Times, Leno isn’t so bitter this time around, perhaps because network executives worked a little harder to soothe him. He says he was involved in the decision and even suggested the time to depart. Just like another entertaining guy from Massachusetts, he’s leaving the job he loves, in time to warrant some love of his own.