Latenight Leno legend: Nice guys finish first

IT WAS A media milestone. Precisely eight years ago this week, Johnny Carson faced his audience a final time and intoned, “I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”

Few believed that Carson would actually retire, no less disappear, but that is indeed what he has done. Similarly, few believed that Jay Leno would establish hegemony over Carson’s kingdom, thus defying the mantra of the press that David Letterman represented the “safe bet.” Yet today Leno rules; and unlike his crotchety predecessors, he seems downright comfy.

Leno’s durability and comfort level, of course, runs counter to the stereotype of the tortured latenight host. Jack Paar was the textbook on-air neurotic, alternately weepy and bitchy, yet a true original. Carson made his name as a comic, but he was a complex, mercurial figure and a gifted interviewer. Chatting with him at the occasional dinner party, I was always left with the suspicion that he was a lot smarter and better-read than he wanted to let on. Genial one moment, testy the next, Carson seemed genuinely discomfited by his celebrity, a man haunted by his own myth.

If Carson, with his ramrod posture and clipped diction, became the Brahmin of latenight, Leno seems more the blue collar joke-plugger. With his relentless twinkle, he works the room, works the press, works the charity circuit. He is the professional good guy who has usurped the place of the naughty neurotics. And he is definitely a winner.

Given the turmoil of TV’s economics, “The Tonight Show” has come to represent a sort of monument to TV’s bountiful past — a mini industry unto itself — and Leno’s rivalry with Letterman is always watched with avid fascination.

A YEAR AGO, Leno’s lead seemed more decisive than ever, especially in the 18 to 49 demo. Leno reaches 5.9 million viewers vs. Letterman’s 4.0 million and does especially well in the major markets. More recently, the publicity surrounding Letterman’s quintuple bypass, plus his colloquy with Hillary Rodham Clinton, gave him a much-needed ratings jolt. Indeed, Letterman’s stinging barbs aimed at CBS have softened lately, with the feisty entertainer even making a surprise appearance at the network’s upfront presentation to advertisers.

Hoping to advance his cause, Letterman has been fine-tuning his show, cutting back his monologues even as Leno seems to be extending his, moving his signature “Top Ten” list to different segments of the show.

Leno, meanwhile, has been holding firm, mixing arch political humor with gentler Nice Guy repartee, even presiding over an on-air mini cooking school for kids. Only now and then do hints of Carson-like anguish emerge. Leno does not choose to forget how “The Late Shift,” the book (and later HBO movie) about the latenight wars, suggested that NBC was committing a massive corporate blunder in opting for Leno over Letterman.

Nor does he forget other media slights, such as Entertainment Weekly’s dopey decision to exclude him from their list of the “Fifty Funniest People Alive.”

Loyal viewers, however, cannot escape the impression that Leno, still only 50, is not only enjoying himself, but is also relishing his five-year contract which falls in the $100 million range. Five shows a week constitute hard work, but those who knew him early in his career as a stand-up recall how he would run through his routines over and over, tossing out jokes to an empty room long after everyone had gone to sleep.

WITH IT ALL, the Leno legend is basically that of a sunny middle-class kid who grew up in the congenial surroundings of Andover, Mass., went to a good college (Emerson) and managed, in a chaotic profession, to sustain a remarkable upward mobility.

Leno is as relentless as he is amusing, as empathetic as he is rehearsed. Chugging around Hollywood in his countless vintage vehicles, blowing his horn at passersby, Leno continues to fortify his good guy image. He works so many charity banquets that I’ve noticed him checking his notes before acknowledging his “hosts” of the evening, as though to ensure that he wouldn’t be thanking GLAAD when he was, in fact, addressing a rheumatism event.

As for the Letterman wars, he has always been at once focused and philosophical. “Let’s face it, this isn’t one of those steel-cage death matches,” he once told an interviewer. “If one of us loses, he still ends up a multimillionaire. How bad can that be — except maybe for his network?”

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