by Linda Holmes
Jay Leno's last Tonight Show airs tonight, but you'll notice the hype is nothing like it was when, for instance, Johnny Carson aired his last shows. (Carson's last was a little-recalled retrospective; his second-to-last show was the one with Bette Midler that everyone talks about.)
Of course, it's a very different event for NBC. Carson was retiring; Leno is leaving for his own prime-time show that will air every weeknight at 10 p.m., come fall. In theory, this is a good thing. In theory, Jay Leno is being promoted. What can be bittersweet about being given a third of your network's weeknight real estate? That's just sweet, right?
So while there has been some looking back this week with clips and so forth (and a silly Thursday-night medley from Billy Crystal), Leno will probably not get his "Here's That Rainy Day." Not just because he's emphatically not that guy, but because he's not really in a position to acknowledge that there's a real possibility that he's experiencing a sad ending.
The great uncertainty that is Jay Leno's prime-time project, after the jump ...
If his fall show is perceived as a success, it won't matter. He will do that show as long as he does it, and when it ends, he'll have all the streamers and balloons and keys to the city he wants.
But if it isn't, then he may wind up wishing he'd gone out with greater fanfare. If the new show fails, this is the end of the Jay Leno Era at NBC — even though the show will undoubtedly stay on a while regardless of ratings, if only because the network isn't likely to have five hours of prime-time shows with which they can abruptly replace it.
The fact of the matter is that anyone who claims to know how the fall Leno show is going to do is lying. No one knows how much of Leno's late-night audience will follow him to prime time. No one knows how many people who don't watch him now because he's on after they're asleep will welcome the chance to watch him at 10.
On the flip side, no one knows how many people who watch him at 11:30 because there's so little competition wouldn't dream of choosing him over C.S.I. Miami or The Mentalist, as he'll need them to do. The other networks aren't exactly lining up the stiffest competition, as you can see on The Futon Critic's chart of the fall schedule.
But no one knows whether this is going to operate as an easy way for other networks to boost shows that essentially have one less real show to compete with (take ABC's good-but-not-great Castle, for instance), or whether it's going to operate as a funnel shoving everybody toward the familiar TV host who, despite his continuing reliance on jokes about O.J. and Bill Clinton, people still like.
Do you judge his odds of success in prime time by looking at his success in late night, which would lead you to believe he may do very well? Or do you judge his odds of success in prime time by looking to other shows that have been given multiple prime-time airings, which would lead you to believe he will burn out, like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Deal Or No Deal?
It's like NBC is speeding toward a sharp curve on a mountain road in an untested vehicle with no brakes. If they make the turn, then they've demonstrated a new way to travel cheaply. But if they don't, you're going to hear a lot of "AIIIIEEEEEE!"-style screaming as they plummet over the edge.
But in the meantime, one of NBC's most durable stars is wrapping up the job for which he will always be remembered, and there's less bang than whimper in his exit so far. Tonight, his replacement, Conan O'Brien, shows up to smooth the transition and to demonstrate that this is an entirely friendly handoff — friendly, you hear? — despite NBC's ham-handed decision several years ago to announce O'Brien's eventual ascendancy.
("We love you, Jay, and here's how we're replacing you and when. Keep up the good work!")
So now, it all starts to happen. Beginning next week, we'll see how Conan's ratings hold up against David Letterman, and in the fall, the Jay Leno Experiment will make tonight into, in retrospect, either a warm, low-key party celebrating a promotion or an oddly anticlimactic end to an era.