How appropriate that 60 Minutes did a lengthy special on Jay Leno Sunday. For starters, Leno deserves it. And secondly, the number 60 is quite fitting since this is the 60th year of the Tonight Show, easily the longest running late night talk show in television history.
No way could Steve Allen have suspected that his unique late night talk show format that debuted in 1954 would become the longest running show of its kind ever. And there have been more hosts to this legendary late night show than one might imagine.
Older Baby Boomers probably remember Allen and Jack Paar but may not recall other hosts that included Jerry Lewis, Bill Cullen, Mort Sahl, Groucho Marks and Ernie Kovacs, all of whom lead to arrival of the ultimate late night king, Johnny Carson in 1962.
I don’t think anyone over maybe 30 would argue that point.
Even today when people hear “Tonight Show,” many still think of Carson. Johnny did the show for 30 years and left on his own accord in 1992. For those of us who saw his final show, we still can remember how heartfelt and sad it was to see this giant of television say goodbye.
At the end of Carson’s goodbye speech he thanked us for letting him into our homes all those years and said he hoped to find something meaningful and a good reason to come back and visit us again in the near future. Sadly that never happened. Johnny did make a brief appearance on David Letterman who most thought was the heir apparent. Instead Leno got the gig.
In defense of Jay, replacing a legend like Carson would have been an uphill battle for anybody. Not only that but by that time, the late night numbers were already down, mostly owing to the competition from cable television. So all things considered, Leno did a damn good job of holding down the fort.
Leno has been accused of being a huckster for Network Television shows and stars whose movies were debuting the week they appeared on the show. He also was tagged with not wanting to promote new comedians and entertainers the way Carson did. Johnny was known for rekindling the career of people like Rodney Dangerfield, introducing Richard Pryor to a mainstream audience and hosting loveable sidekicks that added to the water cooler talks the next day. People like Don Rickles, Red Buttons, Burt Reynolds, Joey Bishop, Joan Rivers, David Brenner – even loveable loser George Gobel. Johnny got a kick out of having his friends on the show often.
And Carson loved to let his guests pick on each other. All those memorable friendly arguments between guys like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and even Dean Martin were off the chain. Johnny even had George Burns on all the time. Carson was famous for giving young, relatively unknown comics a shot. Including a young George Carlin and an older Jonathan Winters.
Johnny even had my then girlfriend Sandahl Bergman from Kansas City on for a sword fight and interview promoting her film Conan the Barbarian with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And while Jay Leno been accused of being less friendly to up and coming comics, he’s certainly had his share on the show. We at Stanford’s know because there’s a long list of comedians who have performed here after appearing on the show. In fact, in just the past two weeks we’ve had two Leno alums, including Kira Soltanovich who started with Leno eight years ago.
Kira and Chelsea Handler had a hit TV show on E! called Girls Behaving Badly. Leno brought her in to do a regular bit called The Phony Photo Booth, which led to her doing stand up on the show and finally getting her own panel of comics on with Jay regularly. Kira did her last Tonight Show a week ago Monday.
“I respect, admire and love Jay Leno, he gave me a big break,” she told me. “He’s a sweet, kind man. What I like most is that he gives you his phone number and when you call it, he actually answers.”
Last week, comic Chris Franjola – who now stars in two television series including After Lately – praised Leno saying, “Jay still has a way with the MidWestern audiences. Maybe one of his weaknesses was not being able to grab the love from New York and other big cities, unlike Johnny Carson.”
On 60 Minutes, Jay made it clear he has no plans, other than to care for his massive classic car collection at the Burbank Airport in two hangars worth over a $100 million. Jay was offered another late night show and other options, but reportedly said, “There is no redoing the Tonight Show, it’s done.”
Times have changed, with social media, video games and services like Netflix and Hulu Plus and more than a thousand other cable choices. There will never be a 20 million viewership to the Tonight Show like Carson once had, and probably not even the three to five million viewers Leno once had.
There was something warm and fuzzy – almost the American Way of Life – during the Tonight Show’s hey days with Johnny Carson. A time when even kids would race home on their bikes to watch Carson and Don Rickles go at it. Or Rickles making fun of Pat Boone. Or Richard Pryor making fun of a young Evel Knievel, which so upset Carson that he kicked Pryor off set during the commercial break.
Now that’s television, see you in Las Vegas, Jay.
PS: You can still catch Leno every Sunday night at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, California.