LOS ANGELES — The last time Jay Leno said good-bye to America, it was in gala fashion, marked by high emotion, a cheering studio audience and tears.
In ending his 17-year stretch on “The Tonight Show” last May, Leno gracefully honored his predecessor, the late Johnny Carson, figuratively passed the hosting baton to successor Conan O’Brien, and then asked James Taylor to serenade viewers with “Sweet Baby James.”
Don’t expect that kind-off weepy, bittersweet send-off Tuesday when Leno signs off his failed prime time program that was once trumpeted by NBC as a bold experiment that could reshape television. No special observances or celebrations are planned and the scheduled guests are Ashton Kutcher (“Valentine’s Day”) and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”).
The decision to exit with a whimper despite the show’s high profile and big-name host represents a noteworthy departure from the traditional talk show finale, which are usually animated by special guests, clips and stunts. While certainly NBC clearly wouldn’t relish drawing further attention to one of its biggest embarrassments in recent memory, the network’s choice still contrasts with audience expectations built up over decades of watching notable talk shows go out — or least try — with a bang.
“These last shows and last guests are the period at the end of a sentence,” said Trevor Kimball, senior editor of tvseriesfinale.com, which specializes in series finales, reunions and revivals. “It also says a lot about who or what the host thinks is important, who they are close to. Ask anyone about what they remember about the end of ‘The Tonight Show,’ and they will always bring up Bette Midler.”
Despite, like Leno, hosting a show that lasted months rather than years as expected, Conan O’Brien’s sign-off from “The Tonight Show” strove for poignancy and a sense of closure. Will Ferrell donned hippie gear and channeled Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, even having the red-haired host join in a farewell jam of “Free Bird.” (And this followed Neil Young’s touching rendition of “Long May You Run.”)
TV historian Tim Brooks said he found O’Brien’s finale “very good, but not the kind that will be remembered forever. Still, he left on a good note, and that was important because there was a lot of bitterness surrounding all of this. A host should not go out on a negative note.”
The last time there were as many memorable departures in late-night talk shows as the past two years was the early 1990s — when Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Arsenio Hall left or changed networks. Carson remains the gold standard for talk show farewells in May 1992 with Midler’s tender “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road).” (While Midler was Carson’s last guest, her appearance came the night before Carson’s last broadcast, which had no guests).
Meanwhile, Letterman’s switch from NBC to CBS in 1993 finally allowed the often sarcastic host to utter something he’d always wanted to say, but never had the chance — that Bruce Springsteen was his next guest. (Springsteen belted out “Glory Days.”)
And in that same year, Arsenio went out to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” thanks to the Godfather of Soul James Brown.
Talk show hosts themselves understandably experience a mix of emotions at the end of their shows. Veteran talk show host Dick Cavett, who has hosted several talk shows on network, cable and public broadcasting, said he does not immediately recall who his final guests were on his various chatfests.
“But what you do remember is the sadness that you and everyone on the show is out of work” he said. “There’s also the curiosity. People expected me to act as if a friend had died, but I was titillated. Something was ending, but I was thrilled that something else was also beginning.”
An appetite for flashy finales are a largely an outgrowth of the media age, according to Charlie Tuna, an announcer for Mike Douglas’ long-running daytime talk show. Tuna, now a disc jockey at KRTH-FM radio station in Los Angeles, said he doesn’t recall much about the host’s final show in 1982.
“There wasn’t all the fire, not the 24-hour media gossip machine that there is now,” he said. “It was an innocent time and people were not under this constant magnifying glass. All I know is that Mike knew it was time to go. It was the end of an era.”
Leno of course is not going to be gone for long — he will reclaim “The Tonight Show” in March.
Said historian Brooks: “The weird thing about Jay saying goodbye this time is that he’s not really going away.”