Leno’s Not-so-Final ‘Tonight’ Finale: No. 1 Was Job One

Jay Leno’s farewell to “The Tonight Show” was, appropriately, a mostly unsentimental affair — inasmuch as Leno isn’t really going anywhere.

Sure, there was extended applause when he came out Friday, loud whoops from the audience, a rather stilted tribute to the staff, and a formal baton pass to Conan O’Brien. “Please give Conan as much support as you’ve given me through the years,” Leno said over the cheers.

But who’s kidding whom? The truth is, if Leno had truly been concerned about supporting Conan, he would have ridden into the sunset and gone on to do something else other than host a five-day-a-week comedy show. He certainly wouldn’t have left the world speculating for months about whether he was going to continue doing a latenight show — in direct competition with O’Brien and NBC — for ABC or Fox.

No, the real story is that NBC — desperate not to lose O’Brien — elbowed Leno to step aside before he was ready in 2004, hoping he would be ready by 2009. He wasn’t, leaving NBC desperate not to lose Leno. And here we are.

Meanwhile, O’Brien has always lauded Leno for his graciousness — as he did again during Friday’s guest appearance — but has never really hidden the fact that in terms of comedic sensibilities, Letterman was a huge, formative influence on him and is much more his cup of tea.

Not surprisingly, Leno joked about NBC during an otherwise pretty much run-of-the-mill monologue, except for a bizarre interlude titled “White Trash Theater.” Let’s hope that bit (which looked like video plucked off YouTube) doesn’t resurface on “The Jay Leno Show” in the fall.

During the opening, Leno said he was taking a post-“Tonight” break by going to “a secluded spot where nobody can find me” — namely, NBC’s primetime lineup. Funny stuff, but maybe a little too close to the truth.

All told, the highlight was a taped package of the “Jaywalking” segment — one of “Tonight’s” most consistent gags under Leno, and usually superior to his overly programmed studio interviews. Even more than Conan’s ability to adapt to 11:30 (he can, whether the audience turns out or not), Leno’s willingness to revise his program into being a general comedy show — instead of a transplanted-to-primetime version of “Tonight” — remains the real question that bears watching.

Leno has always spoken of the job as franchise maintenance — essentially keeping Johnny Carson’s chair warm — and he referenced that in his sign-off. “The Tonight Show” was No. 1 when he took over, he noted — albeit without real competition — and is still on top, 17 years later, as he makes the hand-off to O’Brien.

Ultimately, that commercial triumph over a more critically admired competitor is Leno’s legacy. He was the likable guy that more Americans chose. For a fellow that’s spent his tenure poking fun at politicians, perhaps that democratic victory isn’t such a bad legacy at that.

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