For the first time in 22 years, Jay Leno won’t climb into one of his vintage cars and drive to work today. He’s now behind the wheel of his second forced retirement in five years. This one likely will stick.
A record audience watched Leno’s emotional sign off Thursday night. I was among those on hand for his last Friday show, six days earlier. Even then, there were signs of the wrenching farewell that was to come.
Seeing network television being made is fascinating, especially for someone who spent 40 years in local TV. Nothing is left to chance. Right down to the bank of restrooms to accommodate the queue of 300 eager attendees assembled at NBC’s Burbank, Calif. studio by 1:45 p.m. for the 3 p.m. show.
Thanks to a friend who works for KNBC-TV, I knew where to look in the parking lot for Leno's car of choice for that last Friday trip to Bob Hope Street: a blue and white 1965 Shelby Ford Mustang 350 GT. It was totally in keeping with the jeans and denim shirt pre-show wardrobe he sported as he sauntered onto the stage at 2:45 p.m. The audience, whipped into a frenzy by comedian Don Reed, went to the next level when the man of the moment strode into the spotlight.
And promptly entertained ... questions?
Or rather one question repeated over and over: “Can I have my picture taken with you?”
Whereupon Leno complied, comically interviewing them as a studio photographer captured the moment. I can’t fathom David Letterman accommodating his audience as warmly and genuinely as Leno did that night.
Acting more as a host than a star, Leno then explained the "Tonight Show" process.
“Applaud, laugh loudly even if the host isn’t funny and don’t just mute your cell phones, please turn them off," he instructed audience members. Compliance was total and immediate.
Another bit of bookkeeping followed, namely detailing the guest list that included Leno longtime friend, Tim Allen. That preceded an atypical moment that touched on his pending departure. He talked about his "Tonight Show" family -- most notably the production crew. He mentioned that “it was populated in many cases by the children of former NBC pages and interns who on-boarded a generation ago” and fell in love with Leno if not TV.
The 63-year-old host further explained that the show was recorded live to tape, which meant no do-overs, no edits and that musical acts were also live. The only breaks were for commercials. It was during those brief interludes that you got an indication this was not his idea.
With the stage lights lowered and the band filling the void, Leno seated at the desk, huddled with his producer. If you looked closely into the dimness that enveloped them, you could discern body language that belied his on camera energy. Shoulders slumped, he appeared not disengaged or irked, but resigned. Resigned to a fate beyond his control.
The entire NBC complex at Burbank is being disassembled and moved to a bigger expanse at Universal Studios. That was a real estate decision. What they did to Leno was ordained in some netherworld where considerations other than talent, commitment, humanness and likeability are the coin of the realm.
Perhaps it is because Leno is my age and seems like a genuinely decent guy that I hate to see him shuttled off in TV limbo. He may be gone but certainly he won’t be forgotten. Unlike the network executives who formented this latest blunder.
It was a privilege to watch a master at work.
And, that's my two cents.
Dennis Janson's "2 Cents" columns are published every Monday and Wednesday on WCPO.com. His on-air commentary, under the same name, can be viewed each Friday at 6 p.m.