Jay Leno has left his post as host of NBC's venerable Tonight Show a post he's held since 1992, breaking only to be ousted by NBC in 2009 for Conan O'Brien and de-ousted in 2010. I could be one of those people who like to pile on Jay Leno for his blandness, his treatment of Conan, and other things, including the time he stole my joke.
You may recall that in December 2008 an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at then US President George W. Bush. That day I composed a joke about it, about how the thrower was just hired as a pundit at MSNBC, and sent it to a comedian in Los Angeles who paid me $50 for it. The next day he used it in a web video, and a day or two after that I get a call from my parents that the joke had just been used by Leno on The Tonight Show.
Where's my money Jay?
But enough about my trauma, let's talk about the decline of the late-night talk show in general.
Since the retirement of Johnny Carson in 1992 the 11:30 PM slot has been dominated by Jay Leno on NBC and David Letterman on CBS. Leno pursued the middle of the road of Middle America, while Letterman pursued the critics. This meant that Leno usually got the ratings, such as they were, while Letterman got the praise and prizes.
There's a whole sub-genre about the Leno-Letterman battle for supremacy, so I won't go too deep into that. What I will say is that their feud was like seeing two men fight for the bridge of a sinking ship.
You see back when Carson was the king of late night, he was responsible for 25% of NBC's revenues. Think about that, 1 frigging show, making 25% of a major network's revenues. Single-handedly he became the network's profit margin, keeping NBC afloat when their prime-time ratings were less than prime.
The Tonight Show was also a pop culture touchstone. A good performance on The Tonight Show could turn a complete unknown into a major star, literally overnight. People trusted Johnny Carson and company that the guests would be worth their time whether they heard of them or not.
My how things have changed.
Nowadays you can't get on any late-night talk show unless you're already a major star. Leno struck me as uninterested in his guests while Letterman struck as always trying to show how much better he is than his guests, and to outlive Leno on air. Both attitudes failed to turn my crank, so I basically tuned out of Late Night talk shows all together.
I am not alone. Ratings for both shows slipped to a fraction of what Carson used to get all on his own. Their influence waned, and now they seem to exist solely because they have already been their for so long, they don't know what else to do with the time-slot.
When was the last time a comedian or performer really made their name by appearing on either Leno or Letterman?
I can't remember, can you?
Anyway, I'm not going to make any predictions about how Jimmy Fallon will do behind the desk. But I can't really see him reversing the decline. Aging viewers who stuck with The Tonight Show because it was The Tonight Show might finally tune out, and the younger viewers are busy doing and watching other things at that time.
Since I'm an old coot living in an odd time zone, I'll be in bed, sometimes even asleep.