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Jay Leno set to make his 2nd exit from 'Tonight' show this week



BURBANK, Calif. (AP) - Jay Leno, as affably efficient backstage as he is in front of the camera, avoids waxing poetic about his 22-year "Tonight Show" run that draws to a close Thursday.

Instead, he relies on numbers to tell the story. Leno's tenure is second only to Johnny Carson's 30 years; "Tonight" was No. 1 among viewers when he took it over and will be when he hands it off to Jimmy Fallon; he'll have taped more shows than any predecessor, Carson included, with the final and 4,610th one.

His dry assessment also may stem from a case of deja vu. After all, he lived through this before when he surrendered "Tonight" in 2009 to Conan O'Brien, only to reclaim it after NBC's messy bobbling of the transition and O'Brien's lackluster ratings.

But this time it's different, Leno contends, offering another hard fact: The older generation has to make way for the younger one.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II can keep 65-year-old Prince Charles cooling his heels. Leno doesn't have the power to do the same with Fallon, 39. The "Late Night" host is moving the show from its longtime Burbank home, near Johnny Carson Park and off Bob Hope Drive, to its New York birthplace when he debuts as host on Feb. 17.

"It's been a wonderful job but this is the right time to leave," said Leno, whose once-dark mop of hair is now a neatly groomed silver. "I'm at that age where I don't really listen to the (current) music anymore. I'm not a big tweet guy. A 63-year-old guy reading Miley Cyrus' tweets is a little creepy. Move on."

He makes the argument with the precision of one of his reliable monologue jokes, just as he did when he claimed to understand NBC's decision to evict him for O'Brien - even as he reamed the network on the air.


The years between then and now have seen changes come at a quickening pace, with an ever-more crowded late-night arena and a shifting media environment. Fallon's parody music bits with contemporaries like Justin Timberlake are perfect cut-and-pastes for sites like YouTube that drive young viewer attention and offer new potential for ad sales as network revenues shrink.

In 2012, "Tonight" laid off 20 staffers and Leno took a 10 percent pay cut. The show has averaged a 3.5 million nightly viewership in the past 12 months, which pales in comparison with the double-digit audiences it once claimed.

Leno is planning to expand the comedy club gigs he never abandoned and various outlets for his automotive passion, including the Web show "Jay Leno's Garage," and the magazine and newspaper pieces he writes. He insists his schedule won't include another late-night show, which could only be what he calls "Tonight Light."

"It's hard to re-create this moment. It's like the fighter coming back. You got to be world champion, so it's kind of silly," he said.

"Tonight," which launched in 1954, was shaped by original host Steve Allen and nurtured by successors Jack Paar and Carson. Following them represented the pinnacle for comedians, and it was the role Leno coveted and won upon Carson's 1992 retirement.

His first few months were marred by Leno's longtime manager Helen Kushnick, who, as his first "Tonight" executive producer, was blamed for instigating nasty guest booking wars and fired in what then was characterized as one of TV's biggest publicity nightmares.

Worse was to come, when NBC's "Tonight" host succession plan hatched in 2004 went awry. Leno, who stoically endured insults from Jimmy Kimmel and others who portrayed him as having stolen O'Brien's job, says the past is past. CBS' Letterman, who once jockeyed with Leno for Carson's throne, echoed that.

"How long can I carry this with me?" he told Howard Stern during a SiriusXM interview Friday. He spoke of calling Leno when his second "Tonight" departure was announced, their first conversation in several years, and tipped his hat to his rival when Stern asked if Leno sounded sad.

"I wouldn't say sad. There's nothing to be sad about. He's had a tremendous career there," Letterman said, graciously.

Others have chimed in. "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher, a regular "Tonight" guest, and Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy," ''Ted,") serenaded Leno last week to the tune of "Thanks for the Memories." It was reminiscent of Bette Midler's saucy "You Made Me Watch You" tribute to Carson. This parody was edgier.

"You've been retired and twice been fired for being No. 1. How stupid they are," the pair sang, zinging NBC as a surprised, bemused Leno watched.

Maher was expansive when asked to comment on Leno.

"As a performer trying to make it in show business, and as a human being, you cannot do better than ask, 'What would Jay do?'" Maher said in an email Saturday.

Leno's final show will feature Billy Crystal, his first "Tonight" guest, and Garth Brooks. Leno's legacy - a word that makes him squirm - might include expanding the show's opening monologue; a memorable mea culpa from Hugh Grant after he was arrested in 1995 with a prostitute; the first interview with a sitting president, Barack Obama, in 2009; and the "Jaywalking" fixture, which trips up people with simple questions.

Leno's favorite Q&A is that those queried about how Mount Rushmore was formed often reply, "erosion." His head-shaking reaction: "The wind and rain not only picked four presidents, it picked four of our greatest presidents!"

Was he the most daring, most innovative, most surprising force in late-night? His critics and even clear-eyed admirers said no, and Leno doesn't argue with them - but that's not what counts, he adds: "Whether you like the host or not, you cannot say it's not been a success. A football team might not have the most sophisticated players but can win the Super Bowl."

Leno cannot be called unsophisticated but he is determinedly un-show biz. He makes note of his modest New England upbringing, the high school friends he remains close to, his three-decade marriage to wife, Mavis, and the many "Tonight" staffers who remained loyal throughout his tenure.

Hollywood has been a place to get to tell jokes to a big audience, reap millions of dollars to be carefully saved and keep a safe distance from the circus.

"When this is over, I don't get to my table at (posh restaurant) Morton's and" - here, he feigns dismay as he mimics a maître d' - 'Sorry, Mr. Leno, this is Mr. Fallon's table.'"

Instead, the day after Leno steps off the "Tonight" stage, the one designed for him, he will travel to Florida for a handful of club dates, his wife at his side. And, he said, he'll be content with that.

___

AP Television Writer Frazier Moore in New York contributed to this report.

___

Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber@ap.org and on Twitter@lynnelber.

Join the discussion

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Mary Ann & Mike February 04 2014 at 4:02 PM

All good things come to an end, even if unnaturally. Very very impressed on Jay's graciousness and maturity in handling this dump job by NBC. This is outright ageism since he has had the #1 late night show for so long. There is something sick about having Fallon on as a guest all aglow while Jay is losing the love of his life to him. Bad karma, NBC.

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booboodog February 04 2014 at 4:31 PM

I have never like Letterman & don't care what he thinks about Jay departing for the 2nd time, ratings will drop AGAIN w/out Tonight Show w/Jay Leno

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magus47 February 04 2014 at 4:32 PM

Well I guess I'll watch Letterman. I will NOT watch Jimmy Fallon. I hope the new Tonite show falls flat on it's face. NBC would do better to keep Leno and FIRE the a wholes who made this decision. NBC is in the toilet and they deserve to stay there.

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thelovelyone33 February 04 2014 at 4:33 PM

MaryG...Too bad channel 4 because Leno is the only reason I stay up until that time. I definately do not like Letterman and not too crazy about Jimmy. How about channel 5 Jay?? I would stay up to watch you on there. Good luck whatever you do. Will miss you!!!

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Richard J. Britt February 04 2014 at 4:34 PM

I'll miss you Jay..Jimmy Fallon hasn't paid enough dues to deserve your job..Guess I'll watch KIMMELL now..God be with you JAY...Success will always be yours..

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budshort February 04 2014 at 4:37 PM

I always liked Leno better than Letterman. If one of Jay's guests starts to get the spotlight, Jay backs off and lets them have the stage. If one of Letterman's guests starts to get the spotlight, Dave steps in and puts a stop to it, Dave's ego won't allow him to let someone else have the spotlight. Leno is better than Letterman and Carson was better than Leno.

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1 reply
joted2 budshort February 04 2014 at 4:58 PM

amen!

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AMERICASMUSEUM February 04 2014 at 4:38 PM

Once Leno goes I quit. Fallon believes he is funny but he is not. He laughs before the joke to catch the people. I will never see this program again.

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1 reply
joted2 AMERICASMUSEUM February 04 2014 at 4:56 PM

you and millions of others also.

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muscle3332007 February 04 2014 at 4:40 PM

I hope he goes to another network and teaches NBC a lesson. I like Jimmy Fallon but I don't think he should put Leno out of his job. And Leno's ratings are #1. Can't wait to see what Fallon's are after the Olympic fever is dead.

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1 reply
mb7come11 muscle3332007 February 04 2014 at 6:24 PM

It's not Jimmy's 'fault' - only his 'opportunity'. No one would pass up an offer like THAT. Jay hit the nail on the head when he pinpointed the freshness of Jimmy's talent and appeal. He's sooooo likeable and it spans generationally and cross-culturally when he's doing spot-on impersonations of multi-era performers, the weekly 'hashtags' and 'thank you notes', dance moves with the First Lady, the various games with guests, his love of fatherhood with new babygirl 'Winnie', puppies --- he's just really, really wholesome, honest, and likeable across an extremely broad spectrum - and he's naturally charming with a childlike curiosity and innocence. It's refreshing, and in that regard, Jimmy is in a class all by himself.

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blondemosttimes February 04 2014 at 4:42 PM

Wish Jay would take up residence in Las Vegas, I would go see him all the time!

Flag Reply +3 rate up
glm7548 February 04 2014 at 4:42 PM

Hey Jay.....I'm going to really miss you.....I watched 95% of your shows.......Good Luck in whatever you do......Now go play in your garage......By the way Jay......I have some antique cars to sell to you....How about my 1956 Ford Victoria....Near mint condition....

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