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Jay Leno Reaps the Whirlwind

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So the date of Jay Leno’s termination -- and a termination is what this is, make no mistake—has now been set. On May 29, 2009, Jay Leno will sign off for his last Tonight Show, and Conan O’Brien will take over the following Monday, June 1. And so the crown and scepter passes.

Leno is taking all of this with aplomb, as even his detractors (and full disclosure: I’m one of them) must admit.

He’s taking little jabs at the process, even to the point of showing up at the press conference revealing the date of his finale, disguised as a reporter (and borrowing a schtick that Jimmy Kimmel did just a while ago…but Leno has never been one to worry about originality).

Of course, when you stage a coup, you can’t be all that surprised when someone new comes along to stage another, right? I mean, Leno more or less weaseled his way into the Tonight Show back in the '90s, when it by all rights should have gone to David Letterman. Dave was then a better host (Leno’s gotten better at it than he was at the start), a funnier guy (still is, for my money), and a person with more insight and continuity from Carson to the new generation (this is inarguable -- Leno has always appealed to an older audience because he’s safer, non-threatening and not nearly as subversive as Letterman, O’Brien and the rest; to the Millennials, it barely registers that Tonight exists).

Leno landed the gig, of course, through the machinations of TV exec pinheadedness (as the book The Late Shift portrayed); he rose to power through usurpation. And so now, the next usurper comes along. It’s utterly unsurprising.

Which may be why Leno has such an apparently good attitude about the whole thing. Or it might be that he’s chortling (in that shoulder-shrugging way he has) all the way to the proverbial bank. His early departure isn’t his end; he may be abdicating the throne, but he’s shopping around for a new throne, to be sure. There are networks that are looking and, I’m sure, in the market. Leno will not go quietly into that good Tonight afterlife. He didn’t take a page from Carson’s book in the show he created, and he won’t do it in terms of his retirement, either.

So don’t cry for Leno. He’ll show up again, with the same premise—the same safe monologues, the same pandering interviews, the same near-nightly bits that celebrate how stupid the average American on the street is. (With this as our entertainment, it’s no wonder that some of us choose to live in denial of established science these days -- and this, as a corollary, may indicate who makes up the majority of Leno’s audience.) It’s not the height of comedy; half the time, it’s barely comedy at all. It’s just Jay Leno, and his generic semi-entertainment.

And believe me, after he “retires” at the end of May next year? We’ll barely have time to miss him. -- Teague Bohlen

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