I checked out the Leno’s final episode last night, initially for hate-watch purposes. The tributes were fascinatingly dutiful and unenthusiastic; after Billy Crystal (seemingly?) proudly recollected Leno’s 9/11 racial profiling and Lorena Bobbitt jokes he finished with something like “I promised to be Leno’s last guest. Promise kept.” The whole thing was tainted by the need to both acknowledge and avoid the fact that this is the SECOND time Leno’s been canned despite high ratings to keep a hipper Late Night host on network (a fate he barely dodged in the early ’90s).
The psychology shown in his recent Hollywood Reporter interview underscores his curiosity. Leno’s excuse for skulking around in the wings during Conan’s run (“The last time I got canned I said that it didn’t really seem natural at 57 to be leaving, but 63, 64 feels about right”) would be arbitrary enough even if he hadn’t said on air back in ’04 that the only person who should be hosting late night into their sixties was Johnny Carson. He’s baffled at the claim that he’s insecure, while confessing that he still holds a “work two jobs, keep half the checks in a vault” mentality despite both jobs bringing him millions of dollars a year, and admitting that he was afraid to experience life under another network despite NBC’s transparent disrespect for his commercial accomplishments. His tearful farewell last night was certainly touching, but it also served as an awkward mea culpa for a kazillionaire’s choice to cling to his old job despite losing it to a worthy successor: his family having died early into the show’s run, he couldn’t be expected to give up the one he’d built just because the suits treated him like shit. In this context (and I will always respect Leno for being loudly pro-union), Garth Brooks’ song choices - the extremely bittersweet nostalgia of “The Dance” and the class-identification anthem “Friends In Low Places” – were almost uncomfortably accurate.
All that said, I’m old enough that this funeral for pre-internet cultural banality was not unaffecting (and though I’m the proud owner of Brooks’ first three albums and When Harry Met Sally.., his guests had earned the right to be pallbearers). The Doritos dude is giving up the network throne, leaving a revered hipster icon, a fratty type best known for viral videos and a genial impersonator/Twitter enthusiast to fight for it. I’ve never really bought the idea that Leno used to be funny; at best I’ll accept he made a teenage Patton Oswalt’s day with a less vulnerable Dangerfield shtick that might have seemed fresh before people realized there was little behind his Letterman couch bits, and before Kinison, Leary, Hicks, etc gave young jerks someone edgier to call their own. But after 20 years of shaking my fist at what he represents, it feels weird to see him go.