Jay Leno says goodbye as Tonight Show host

Posted: February 6, 2014 at 3:20 a.m.

Jay Leno and Julia Louis-Dreyfus share a selfie on The Tonight Show in September.

Tonight marks the end of an era - the Jay Leno era for The Tonight Show.

Leno will host his final episode at 10:35 p.m. today on NBC. He’s had a good run.

In fact, he’s had a couple of good runs. Leno replaced Johnny Carson (who was host for 30 years beginning in 1962) in May 1992 and served until 2009 when he left the show for a prime-time talk show that failed miserably.

It was all precipitated by a convoluted and ill-advised NBC contract deal with Conan O’Brien that promised him The Tonight Show in 2009.

It was a debacle.

Leno’s and O’Brien’s separate ratings were disappointing. After only six months, a desperate NBC was playing musical chairs with their time slots. It got messy.

Bottom line: Leno got The Tonight Show back and O’Brien got $33 million to go away.

Flash forward three years.

In April, NBC announced that Leno, 63, would retire from The Tonight Show in 2014 when his contract was up, and Jimmy Fallon, 39, would be his successor. Having had 10 months to say goodbye, Leno seems to be easing out gracefully. He’s nothing if not a pro.

Last month in a 60 Minutes interview, Leno said, “It’s not my decision. And I think I probably would have stayed if we didn’t have an extremely qualified, young guy ready to jump in. This makes perfect sense to me. I understand this.

“It’s always nice to keep working. Sure it is. But am I extremely grateful? Yeah. Do I understand the circumstance? Yes, of course.”

Fallon, host of NBC’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon since 2009, will take over Leno’s spot on Feb. 17 after that Monday’s Olympics coverage in order to tap into the publicity during the games.

On Feb. 24, the show will revert to its regular 10:35 p.m. slot.

NBC’s logic: Fallon will draw a younger audience. He has a quicker wit, more energy, is spontaneous and a versatile sketch comedian and musician. Late night is highly competitive and Fallon is the future.

He will also be moving Tonight back to New York after 42 years in “beautiful downtown Burbank.” The show’s new name: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Fallon’s first guest will be Will Smith, with U2 as musical guests.

Meanwhile, Leno will go out on a note of nostalgia tonight. Featured guest will be Billy Crystal, who was Leno’s first guest 22 years ago. Country star Garth Brooks will also appear.

About Leno’s future, NBC Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt told a recent gathering of TV writers, “I would love him to do specials with us, and we’ve got ideas about other sorts of shows he can host.”

Crunching numbers. I have several readers who enjoy tracking Nielsen trends.

Everyone needs a hobby. Here are the numbers they requested.

The Grammys on Jan. 26 drew its second-biggest audience in 21 years. An average of 28.5 million tuned in, according to Nielsen. That’s up just a notch, but nowhere near the record 40 million who watched in 2012 after Whitney Houston’s death.

Meanwhile, 33.3 million tuned in for President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union address on Jan. 28. It was his least-watched yet. (His first drew 52 million.)

Ax falls. NBC has shelved the struggling freshman sitcom Sean Saves the World. As is the network’s habit, it’s not officially canceled yet because networks try to keep the pink slips quiet.

The TV Column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Email: mstorey@arkansasonline.com

Weekend, Pages 32 on 02/06/2014