I Actually Feel Bad for Jay Leno

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 7 2014 11:06 AM

I Actually Feel Bad for Jay Leno

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For Leno, it's so hard to say goodbye.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Jay Leno can’t get no respect. His last show as host of The Tonight Show after 22 years was a sort of meditation on this very Rodney Dangerfield subject. Leno knows he don’t get no respect. He began by “joking” that his departure was not his own choice. “I don’t like goodbyes,” he said. “NBC does. Tonight is our last show for real. I don’t need to be fired three times. I get the hint.” And the last show perfectly exemplified why he doesn’t get much respect, with its tired jokes and ancient pop-culture references. But as it ended, with Leno breaking down into tears about how much he loves his job and the people he works with, I felt sad for him, a guy who did his job—The Tonight Show gets good ratings—who was tossed out for being too old and not nearly cool enough and who knows, on some level, he’s not quite appreciated.

Leno came out to a standing ovation and launched into his very last monologue, which was all over the place. Leno famously loves doing and honing the monologue, even though it’s never very good, and this one in particular was rushed, jerky, and flat. He made a bunch of cracks about the length of his tenure. “22 years is a long time. When I started hosting, marijuana was illegal, and you could smoke cigarettes everywhere.” Ba-dum-dum-ching. Then he pivoted to jokes about Justin Bieber and even a lifeless callback to his famous interview with Hugh Grant. This was followed by a montage of his favorite moments with politicians, also known as “elementary fun with basic video manipulation,” i.e., watch-John-Boehner-smack-Nancy-Pelosi-in-the-head-with-a-gavel.

There were numerous celebrity guests. One pre-taped reel had famous people giving Leno advice on what to do in retirement. (Notable: Martha Stewart hitting on Leno, hard; Obama making Jay ambassador to Antarctica.) Bill Maher joked that Leno would likely be back in a few months, just one of many lines suggesting as much. Bob Costas recalled that there “came a time when I was replaced by a younger guy, that no-talent Greg Kinnear,” and encouraged Leno to take up whiskey. In another homage, from  “The Shut Your Von Trapp Family Singers,” Jack Black sang, “If Fallon tanks you’ll be back here next year.”

Billy Crystal, who had been the first guest on Leno’s Tonight Show, was also his last. Crystal took a trip down memory lane when he arrived, doing his own monologue cataloguing Leno’s best jokes, which is how Lorena Bobbitt got a mention on national television in 2014. Than he and Jay sat down and reminisced about knowing each other in the ’70s, mentioning many people even less fresh than Lorena Bobbitt. On his last show, Leno had on exactly who he wanted—and he wanted Crystal and, also, Garth Brooks. For long stretches of the show it was impossible to tell what year it was.

While Crystal and Leno were talking, Crystal lauded Leno for loving his job. “More than anyone I know you love being a comedian,” Crystal told Leno. Leno does, palpably, love his job and he always, always tries very hard, which got him 22 years as host of The Tonight Show, but not the chance to retire on his own terms. In the very last minutes of the show, sitting behind a desk he clearly doesn’t want to leave, Leno broke down. “I want to thank you folks. You folks have been incredibly loyal. This is tricky. This has been the greatest 22 years of my life. I am the luckiest guy in the world. It’s just incredible,” Leno said, sitting with his massive jaw in his hand, eyes glittering, looking more than a little undone. He went on to say that he was genuinely “excited for Fallon. It’s fun to be the old guy who sits back. It really is time to go. It really is.” The most impressive thing about the night was that in that moment, it almost seemed like Leno meant it.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.