Four thousand six hundred and ten episodes later, James “Jay” Leno’s stint as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” is over.
Feb. 6 marked the end of an era when Leno finally walked away from NBC. He went out on an incredible high note, having the best “Tonight Show” ratings in 22 years. His final episode included guests Billy Crystal, Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian and Garth Brooks, all who enthusiastically celebrated and serenaded the comic. Even President Barack Obama got in on the tomfoolery during the grand finale, offering Leno ambassadorship to Antarctica. The host danced in the studio with his wife and celebrated his long run before driving away from the Burbank set in one of his prized classic cars. Without any word of future plans, Leno appeared relaxed as he headed into quasi-retirement – and at 63 years old, it was about time.
Within hours of Leno’s departure, news outlets and bloggers were buzzing with theories on how new host Jimmy Fallon would take on the program. Fallon is a fairly young player in the comedy game, but comes with an impressive resume, including a wide range of successful film roles and a strong run on Saturday Night Live. Fallon’s accessible humor, friendly stage presence and penchant toward silliness makes him an easy favorite. Almost immediately after Leno’s final episode, advertisements for Fallon’s takeover and Seth Meyer’s appointment to Fallon’s old post were omnipresent. NBC was clearly enthusiastic about the fresh faces they were bringing to the screen: It had been disclosed by The New York Daily News that Leno was paid several million to leave before his contract expired.
New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley synthesized the situation when she wrote, “Mr. Leno’s emotional last bow was poignant not because he is a legendary figure who can never be replaced, but because he is the nice guy who worked really hard, did a great job, and will barely be missed come Monday morning.”
Stanley’s remarks ring true. Leno moved up quickly in the ranks, overcoming his struggles with dyslexia and doing grunt work as a writer for both Carson and Letterman. Leno brought on guests that hosts only dreamed of talking to, ranging from celebrity stalkers to President Barack Obama, the latter of whom marked the first time a president currently in-office appeared on a late night talk show. Leno asked the questions other hosts were too afraid to ask. Though he received plenty of flack for the O’Brien fiasco, he remained stalwart in bringing up the ratings for the network that first gave him a chance. By many reports, he earned every penny of his suspected $32 million yearly salary.
With plenty of savings in the bank and over 190 vintage cars and motorcycles to drive, Leno will surely find some creative ways to fill his free time.