We pass from the era of the Big Chin to that of Big Hair tonight with the end of Jay Leno's 17-year run as host of the Tonight Show, a franchise that will be taken over Monday by Conan O'Brien.
We had a short report on Morning Edition today by NPR's Barry Gordimer which was read by David Greene.
The NPR report mentions one of the best features Leno added to the show, Jaywalking, where he would conduct on-the-street interviews with people who were living proof that ignorance is not only bliss but also very funny.
The NPR report also mentions that on the day Johnny Carson ended his three-decades long run as host of the show, he never mentioned successor Leno's name. Very strange.
To mark Leno's last day, the Washington Post had a good piece on Leno, noting how newsy and political his monologues were. He arguably paved the way for Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Leno's signature contribution has been his nightly monologue, which is longer and more politically oriented than even Carson's was each night. In a conversation with reporters earlier this month, Leno noted that the monologue is "the most fun" part of the show. As a club comic, Leno said, he used to watch the news and then "run down to the Improv or the Comedy Store or one of the clubs and get onstage and tell that topical joke to the audience. It would get a laugh and I'd say to myself, 'This is a great joke [but] I only got to tell it to 85 people or 200 people.' The fun thing about 'The Tonight Show,' something happens, you write the joke and run out on the stage. It's like fresh-squeezed orange juice. There's the vine, here's the juicer and you get it right the same day."
Leno writes much of his material each day, structuring it like a newspaper, says Rick Ludwin, the NBC executive who oversees the network's late-night programming. "He opens with the top story of the day, moves to entertainment, sports, maybe a weather story," he said. "People who watch the show have watched the news right before and they want to laugh at what they've seen."
Over time, Ludwin says, the length of Leno's monologue has grown, from four minutes in his early "Tonight" years to sometimes as long as 12 minutes. In fact, NBC tweaked the show's set in 1994 to move Leno closer to the studio audience ("He felt more comfortable that way," says Ludwin), further emphasizing the stand-up aspect of his show. Leno for years has opened the show by walking out and shaking hands with audience members in another effort to underscore the comedy-club vibe.
The sheer volume of jokes alone may have made Leno the most "political" comedian on television. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington think tank that has tracked late-night political humor since 1988, Leno has told one-third more politically themed jokes than Letterman since 1992 (a staggering 33,331 overall through 2008) and almost five times as many as Conan O'Brien. During the 2008 campaign, he was also the most balanced of all the late-night comics, with quips and cracks aimed almost equally at Republicans and Democrats. What's more, "The Tonight Show" had more candidates as guests than any other late-night show, edging out "The Daily Show."
"He's really responsible for making late night a source of political humor," says S. Robert Lichter, the CMPA's president. "Carson had political jokes, but they were mostly filler. For Leno, it was the main thing. Whenever a public figure was involved in some personal foible, you knew you'd hear about it on Leno."
But Leno fans will still be able to see plenty of the Everyman funny man, who moves to a new NBC prime-time show in the Fall.