Jay Leno is about to become the only man whose posterior was ejected from the “Tonight Show” host’s chair – twice.
And yes, we’re told that will definitely turn into something of a standard TV news “how do you feel” interview question on “60 Minutes” this evening when Steve Kroft interviews the dramatically departing Leno.
And, of course, I’ll be among the millions watching.
But I won’t be among those expecting much.
TV history, nevertheless, is being made after all on “The Tonight Show,” when Leno leaves the host’s chair forever on Feb. 6 and Jimmy Fallon arrives Feb. 17 following the Winter Olympics.
You still need the fingers of only one hand, somewhat incredibly, to count the number of full-time, multiyear hosts of “The Tonight Show,” one of the network fixtures of American life – Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno (twice) and Conan O’Brien. Fallon’s ascendancy to the late-night TV throne to end late-night thrones will be the first time a second hand has been needed to tick off “Tonight Show” hosts.
What the event will really mark, I think, is the total assumption of Lorne Michaels to the throne of Late Night Programming Pope at NBC. His invention of “Saturday Night Live” all those years ago has now become the seedbed for ALL major NBC late-night programming on the network, now that “SNL” alumnus Fallon goes to “Tonight” and Seth Myers is set to take Fallon’s 12:30 a.m. slot.
With all of that, this evening’s “60 Minutes” Leno story could have been an occasion when “60 Minutes” fully remade itself for the 21st century the way a “Tonight Show” with Fallon is about to.
Fat chance. I can, quite frankly, think of at least three dozen questions that could be asked and just as many gripping side trips that could be taken by “60 Minutes” – presumed kingpin of TV journalism – with a big, fat juicy Leno interview embedded in the center. I don’t expect to hear or see a single one of them. (Chief among them: How did a comic once known for his generosity as a coastal Comedy Store wannabe from Boston turn into such a despised symptom of mediocrity among fellow comics? His old frenemy David Letterman’s partial answer is that Leno is the most insecure man he’s ever known – a hopelessly rivalrous sort who could usually be counted upon to augment his success by seizing upon any sign of performing weakness from a comedic colleague. In other words, the stand-up comedian’s equivalent of a gossipy mean girl in high school.)
I’m usually an admirer of Kroft, but you can bet your booty he and “60 Minutes” won’t begin to be up to the task of doing this story the way it truly demands to be done.
With “60 Minutes’ ” unique resources and access, it ought to be what journalists like to call “fully reported,” with, for instance, a few famous Leno detractors like Howard Stern and George Lopez around along with several critics to detail their briefs against him. It also might be worthwhile to detail exactly who is responsible for – and why – Leno’s keister getting continuously booted out of NBC late night despite his numbers’ success.
Nobody’s going to convince me that demographics – i.e. he’s too old – is the whole story. That’s the one that stupidly indoctrinated TV people can be convinced is the one but it doesn’t wash, I don’t think, when you examine it closely at all.
On the other hand, what I want from “60 Minutes” is something that the show is, no doubt, still much too old-fashioned to do, even in one of the worst 12-month periods the show has ever had. I want “60 Minutes” to take television seriously enough that it fully explores a major milestone of the medium’s history as well as it ineptly pretended to explore the tragic events at our embassy in Libya.
It isn’t that the stories are, in any way, equally important but the “60 Minutes” way of covering its own medium continues to be the kind of superficial thoughtless avant-gossip that is characteristic of patrician world beaters who are condescending to a subject that actually occupies the minds of fellow citizens a lot of the time.
Leno and the history of “Tonight” are good subjects for a truly advanced “60 Minutes” endeavoring to think out loud tonight. But all we’re likely to get are some semi-challenging questions by Kroft in neo-Mike Wallace mode.
To reacquaint myself with why Leno is probably taking a flying bye-bye despite ratings success, I actually tried on Thursday night to do something I never do – watch a whole Leno “Tonight Show.” I found it as impossible as I guessed it would be.
The only thing that night that Leno did better than Fallon was a Justin Bieber joke. Leno’s was about the paradox of Justin Bieber busted for DUI while supposedly drag-racing a Lamborghini at 60 mph. Leave it to car guy Leno to sarcastically shout at Bieber “Second gear!”
In almost every way, Fallon showed, with complete effortlessness, why his shy and sweet but genuine urbanity might be almost any enlightened executive’s choice for the prime late-night time slot in TV history.
Not only does Fallon’s musicality make him the musically hippest late-night host TV has had since Allen (Fallon’s house band, the Roots no less, is so cool it needs two separate levels for the whole band – one to include drums, bass, guitars and, yes tuba, the other for keyboards), but Fallon had the temerity to have a valedictory interview in his current time slot with Dick Cavett, the shamelessly urbane and intellectual talk show host who was the most sophisticated TV ever had.
So sweetly worshipful of Cavett was Fallon that he copied Cavett’s old facing chair set to do it. (A grateful Cavett responded to Fallon’s unmistakable idolatry by coughing up an old “so cold” joke he’d once written for Johnny Carson: “It’s so cold the flashers in Central Park are only describing themselves.”)
Leno’s oafishness was so pervasive every second that I watched that I gave it up midway through and, with immense gratitude, seized on Letterman’s talking to Rachel Maddow about the recent Chris Christie Follies and the imminent danger and human rights issues of the Winter Olympics to come.
Leno’s guest Matt LeBlanc gave the lame duck host an opportunity to transcend his oafishness with some genuine humanity. Why, joshingly asked Leno, was LeBlanc breaking custom on the show and wearing the sort of suit one might wear to court?
Because, answered LeBlanc with soft-spoken, genuinely sentimental rue and sorrow, this was the last time he’d ever be on Leno’s “Tonight Show.”
He was showing respect to a sensitive and dramatic moment the way a well-brought up and decent young man should.
Leno, characteristically, rolled right over it.
Demonstrating perfectly for anyone who might wonder why he’ll only have two more weeks to do so.