Give Jay Leno some credit. He’s due some after his farewell to “The Tonight Show” on Thursday night.
Why? Well, his long-planned final guest performer was Garth Brooks. The last thing we heard on any Leno “Tonight Show” – just before Leno’s terse, shouted “good night everyone” – was Brooks singing his song “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places.”
The audio wasn’t good. But go to Brooks’ website and you can find these lyrics: “We may be through/But you’ll never hear me complain/’Cause I’ve got friends in low places/Where the whiskey drowns/and the beer chases my blues away/And I’ll be OK/I’m not big on social graces/I think I’ll slip down to the oasis/Oh I’ve got friends in low places...
“Well I guess I was wrong/ I just don’t belong/But then I’ve been there before/ Everything’s all right/I’ll just say good night/and I’ll show myself the door.
“I didn’t mean to cause a big scene/Just wait ’til I finish this glass. Then sweet little lady/I’ll head back to the bar/And you can kiss my (insert word here that rhymes with glass.)”
The show before then was best when Leno and old stand-up comedy buddy Billy Crystal – his very first guest 22 years ago – reminisced about being struggling comics in the comedy clubs. Crystal then did one of those funny, specially written songs that are so well-remembered from his Oscar gigs, one with the bouncy refrain “So long, farewell.” And then he introduced a string of celebrities to each sing a verse: Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Chris Paul, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons and, yes, no less than Carol Burnett and Oprah Winfrey, to lend “class” to the occasion. It seemed to me an awfully luminous and stellar bunch to be turning into an “Up With People” ensemble (or the newest high school musical on the Disney Channel) but, for all its good cheer, it was a typically clumsy and toothless “Tonight” way of departing from the place he’d been for 22 years.
It was that Garth Brooks coda to it all that gave a tearful Leno’s final NBC hour a thoroughly appropriate “take this job and shove it” overtone. He had, after all, (as he said in his opening monologue) gotten “the hint” after getting “fired three times.”
Leno’s message – which came through Brooks’ long-planned song – is that he’s got his working-class middle American fans at clubs and arenas around the country – he’s coming to the Seneca Niagara Casino on April 5 – and he’ll do nicely for quite a while doing the job he always has explained to us as “tell joke, get check.”
In the run-up to Leno’s final farewell, “60 Minutes” threw all of its “aren’t we just the Bee’s Knees” prestige behind a content-less final Leno interview by Steve Kroft while it took, of all people, Billy Bush’s five-part “exit interview” with Leno on “Access Hollywood” to ask a question many of us would have asked if given the chance: Why did David Letterman call his old comedy club friend “the most insecure person” he’d ever known?
Leno’s answer was a hurt and befuddled expression, a fumbling “I don’t know” to Bush and a mumble that some day he’d have to “ask Dave about that.”
Which, you can bet the farm, will happen sooner than later. Anyone reading one of the excellent histories of stand-up comedy of the past 30 years (Bill Knoedelseder’s “I’m Dying Up Here” is superb) knows that Leno and Letterman were once indeed not only a mutual admiration society but were the kings of stand-up comedy at Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store. It seems to have been a longtime Leno proclivity to rejoice in friends’ and rivals’ failures that, among other things, contributed to Letterman’s judgment of Leno’s “insecurity.”
Despite it, they’ve recently admitted talking privately in the run-up to Leno’s on-air demise and you can bet that Letterman will, at some point, score big by having his lifelong “frenemy” on his show. On the Steve Allenish off-the-wall late night NBC show that was Letterman’s most radical TV achievement, Leno used to be very funny coming on and doing a stand-up comedy routine while sitting in the chair next to Letterman and simultaneously eating a submarine sandwich between jokes.
But then those were the halcyon days of ironic “anti-showbiz” that had turned into the hippest form of American show business.
We’re in another era now, is the judgment of Lorne Michaels, the new ruling sultan of late night comedy at NBC. His “Saturday Night Live” still rules on weekends and his boys Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers will now take over all of NBC’s late-night comedy block beginning at 11:30 p.m. weeknights.
In an interview that appeared in the “Vulture” section of New York magazine recently, Michaels said “Jimmy (Fallon’s) not ironic … Jimmy’s always been a great entertainer – a real host. Like Carson, he wants you to be comfortable on his show. He’s looking for how to get the best out of you. He’s not looking to score off some mistake you’ve made or (how) you misspoke. I think that’s why people relax on his show and enjoy him.”
In Bill Carter’s book about the Letterman/Leno battle for the “Tonight Show,” the New York Times reporter revealed that Leno’s old manager and first “Tonight Show” executive producer, the late, legendarily strident Helen Kushnick, agitated frequently with NBC executives for her client Leno to take over from still reigning Johnny Carson on the grounds of Carson’s advancing age.
Kushnick was married to lawyer Jerrold Kushnick, who died in 1989, the year after Henry (“The Bombastic”) Bushkin’s 18-year employment as Carson’s personal lawyer, fixer, cleaner and friend came to significant grief.
We now read in Bushkin’s incredibly indiscreet tell-all memoir of his years as Carson’s friend and hatchet man that his first employer when he joined Carson full time was Helen Kushnick’s husband Jerrold.
Bushkin clearly had a relationship with the Kushnick family.
After, then, representing Carson in the most sensitive areas of the King of Late Night’s life, Bushkin’s falling out with Carson had devolved into legal recriminations and personal frigidity.
In other words, the man who knew some of the deepest and darkest secrets of Carson’s entire life was now out in the world, at the very least, on the opposite side of legal disputes with Carson.
And that very man, full of the most intimate and potentially damaging Carson knowledge, also happened to be an ex-employee of the husband of Jay Leno’s manager, Helen Kushnick. In his best-selling book on Carson, Bushkin says in passing that he deeply regretted, at the time, having to end his professional association with Kushnick to join Carson full time.
Not long after the break with Bushkin, Carson, somewhat inexplicably, announced he’d had enough of “The Tonight Show” even though professional “Tonight Show” watchers might have guessed he had at least two or three more premium years of first-rate functioning in the “Tonight Show” host’s chair.
Not to be. Jay Leno – client of the widow of Henry Bushkin’s old friend Jerrold Kushnick – became the host of “The Tonight Show.”
Can those dots be connected? Maybe they can, maybe they can’t.
If so, maybe, that’s why Leno, at NBC, found himself completely bereft of “friends” in high places. Call it corporate guilt. Or karma.