Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

9 Reasons Why Jay Leno's Retirement Will Be the End of Late Night Drama

Reports surfaced recently that NBC executives are exploring the option of replacing Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show when Leno's contract runs up in September 2014. For those who follow these late night skirmishes, it seems like this is happening awfully soon after 2010's Leno/Conan Tonight Show debacle, in which Leno handed over his show and happily took it back less than a year later when his primetime talk show failed. NBC will probably keep Leno around longer than 2014, but the fact that they're starting to explore a post-Leno Tonight Show means the big transition isn't so far away. It's likely, though, that this will be the last headline-grabbing talk show power struggle for a while because the late night landscape has changed so much the past few years. And it probably won't be a bloody battle like the last one given how super polite and new to the job Jimmy Fallon is.

Here are 9 reasons why Jay Leno's retirement – which has to happen eventually – will leave the late night world a much more peaceful place than it was when he got his show in 1992:

1. The Tonight Show doesn't mean what it used to

This isn't Johnny Carson's Tonight Show anymore. The series was a late night pioneer, and it was pretty much the only game in town during Carson's reign. But Leno's far less popular stint as host plus the bungled handoff to Conan in '09 has lost the show a lot of the esteem and clout it once had. The Tonight Show is no longer a dynasty; it's just another talk show.

2. There are more late night shows than ever before,  meaning there's enough room for everybody

The past few years have seen a major expansion in the amount of late night series on TV. In addition to all the network shows (Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, Ferguson, and Fallon, plus Carson Daly's show is still a thing), there's also The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Chelsea Lately, Conan, and Watch What Happens Live all airing 4-5 nights a week on cable and a whole ton of others airing weekly like Brand X with Russell Brand and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell on FX, Don't Sleep! with T.J. Holmes on BET, and the brand new Nikki and Sara Live on MTV. On top of all that, Arsenio Hall is launching a new syndicated show, Pete Holmes filmed a pilot for a post-Conan show on TBS, and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's company Gary Sanchez is making a late night talk show in the style of a morning show for USA. Comedians are still fighting to get talk shows, but they're not all fighting for one talk show anymore.

3. Most of the late night talk show hosts are friends now

Despite coming from rival networks, opposite sides of the country, and multiple generations, the current batch of late night hosts are pretty chummy with each other and get along way better than Leno and Letterman ever have.

Here's a map of who's done whose show in the three years since the 2010 Conan/Leno fiasco (Arrows both ways indicate the hosts have swapped appearances, while one way arrows only indicate one of the hosts has appeared on the other's show):

4. Late night hosts aren't pulled exclusively from the acidic stand-up world anymore

"Our way of life at The Comedy Store is exactly the way you'd think it would be for a group of comics. It was tinged with sarcasm and ugliness and insult, but everybody loved it. We thrived on it. We could call each other names, we could steal each other's jokes, we could make fun of each other's girlfriends… You take that out of the comedy store and all of the sudden, 'Oh my God, it's Civil War! We can't believe it!' But the truth of it is the way Jay and I behaved toward each other is the way comics tend to behave toward one another."

– Letterman to Oprah last month

Letterman readily admits in the above quote that his relationship with Leno was fueled by the caustic environment from the stand-up world, but late night talk show hosts today mostly aren't bred from stand-up clubs and that means the comedy club baggage Letterman describes doesn't get transported into the medium. Before landing their late night shows, Conan O'Brien was a TV writer, Jimmy Kimmel was a radio and TV host, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert were best known as sketch actors, Craig Ferguson was a sitcom actor best known for his character stand-up prior to that, and Carson Daly was a VJ. Sure, Jon Stewart and Chelsea Handler come from stand-ups, but they're the exceptions these days.

5. The late night audience has shrunk

Cable, DVR, the internet, and sleep have eroded the audience of the big networks' late night shows, making the jobs that much less coveted. With Hulu and YouTube clips of talk shows, it doesn't matter what timeslot a show airs in, what network it's on, or what it's called – as long as people are watching it.

6. Late night hosts are cautious of bitterness

Take last time's late night wars. While Letterman, Conan, and Kimmel had a field day with making fun of Leno selfishly taking his old job back, Fallon didn't take sides (which was partly a political move that helped him become a serious contender for replacing Leno) and neither did Ferguson, who told his audience, "I know this isn't really a late-night talk show. It's just something that happens about the same time." There's such a huge lack of rivalry between Fallon and Ferguson, who compete on the two biggest networks in late night during the exact same timeslot, that they even waved to each other while on air once in a crossover-ish stunt. It's hard to imagine Leno and Letterman ever engaging in something so sweet and chummy. After most comedians in the business expressed support for Conan O'Brien and disgust for Jay Leno during the Tonight Show debacle (except Leno's buddies Jerry Seinfeld and, um, Paul Reiser), it seems like Leno's behavior has made him an anti-role model for late night hosts and aspiring late night hosts alike.

7. Ratings are spread out across all the shows, so there's not one coveted late night gig

The Tonight Show and The Late Show are no longer the ratings juggernauts they used to be. Here are average late night ratings of all the big shows for the week of February 4th-8th, 2013 (via Zap2It). As you can see, most of the shows are neck in neck, and the whole late night landscape only covers a span of less than 3 million viewers:

Leno                      3.5 million viewers/0.8 rating with adults 18-49
Letterman           3.5 million/0.8
Kimmel                 2.5 million/0.7
Stewart                 1.8 million/0.8
Fallon                    1.6 million/0.5
Ferguson             1.6 million/0.5
Colbert                 1.4 million/0.6
Daly                       0.9 million/0.3
O'Brien                 0.8 million/0.4

8. Late night franchises are dying out

The last five nightly late night shows to start up were Conan, Lopez Tonight, Chelsea Lately, The Colbert Report, and Jimmy Kimmel Live – all shows that specifically incorporate their host's name into the title and avoid the Tonight Show with ______ title format that allows for hosts to be easily slid in and out of the franchise without a complete title change. There won't be a battle to see who will be the host of Conan because only Conan can be the host of Conan. TBS won't be able to take his job away like NBC did.

9. Once Jay Leno retires, there will be no more Jay Lenos

Leno is the only talk show host who's on the record for hiding in a closet to listen to a network meeting. The dude is a rare breed.


Graphic designed by: David Kantrowitz

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  • Evan Roche

    How does Carson Daly have more viewers than Conan? Stiff competition? What?

    • Bitterpeace

      That's what I said. Conan should be right below Letterman. I don't get that.

      • http://twitter.com/DonMcGurrin Don McGurrin

        I watched Conan twice and I would not watch it again. I did not care for him when he came on after Leno back in 2010.

    • LAVA89

      Probably because Conan is on TBS (aka cable satellite). So by default Daly gets more viewers for being on a big network. A better comparison would be either of Conan's show's on NBC to Daly's.

  • Bitterpeace

    Leno sucks. Un-watchable suck ass.

    • Marlene B

      Lenos show is great, also I love Jommy Fallon!

      • Ajarn

        Who's Jommy Fallon?

  • Marlene B

    Conan SUCKS!

  • Daniel

    The music is baaaaad on the late shows and always has been. Rather watch re-runs of Perry Mason or anything old.

  • tenplay

    The writer's hostility toward Leno is obvious. I usually tape his show and watch it as I have my morning coffee. He has a good lineup of interesting guests and music groups. I rarely watch the other talk show.

  • no one you know

    As far as I'm concerned (if that matters and it likely doesn't), Leno is the best of the pack anyway. The rest really suck. I don't like Letterman, can't stand Conan at all (his commercials are entirely witless), and the rest are different kinds of shows. Letterman's is almost a copycat of the Jay Leno show in some respects, and I like Leno's personality. It will be a big loss to see Leno's show go off the air, and to me that means there won;t be any shows to watch that late at night that even compare.

  • http://www.facebook.com/diana.winters.31 Diana Winters

    I don't watch any of them. They're all trash.

  • Geoff Peterson


  • Michael Lasichak

    I can't believe all these people get paid MILLIONS of dollars to ask other actors or sports stars questions? Anybody can do that….So whatever movie star what is the main plot in your newest movie? And so and so is also this with you isn't she/he? Where was this movie shot? Now you told me back stage that?….Whats that all about?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1354980024 Colin William Gallagher

      You also have to write a new monologue every weeknight. FOR YEARS. Even with a staff of writers that's pretty damn amazing.

  • Chuck U. Farley

    This piece made me think about late night television, so thanks for writing it. I remember when I started watching Conan back in college (roughly 1993). His show (and brand of humor) always struck me as different in comparison to the others at the time. Edgy might not be the right term, but certainly directed at a younger demographic than Leno. In more recent years I tuned in for Leno's monologue, but that didn't last long for me. Honestly, at this point, I have lost interest in all of them just like I don't follow many network television or news shows anymore. I want to see more biting humor. I laughed pretty hard when Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes in 2010.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jerry.jensen.501 Jerry Jensen

    Jay! Jay ……. say it ain't so?

  • Judy Becker

    I love Leno. The only time I watch something else is if Leno's show is a repeat. He got screwed by NBC before and it sounds as if they are going to try to do it again. He"s a smart guy. He'll land on his feet again and NBC will be sorry. No offense to Fallon.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sherri-Long/1043529065 Sherri Long

      I love Jay Leno too, always have and always will. He is a good guy, stays out of scandal, and he is cute at 62, very endearing. His wife Mavis is a lucky woman

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1139121280 Matt Ouellet

    Subjective statement.

  • Professor_Randy_Boy

    Used to enjoy watching Letterman, until he went uber-PC liberal-friendly; the lack of which is what had *previously* set him apart from Leno et al… now I *prefer* Leno because he's (now) *not* maniacally PC-liberal, as others here have similarly noted. Oh, and because he's an honest-to-God Car Guy. Owning that much is likely what changed his political leanings, as it usually does with Hollywood types who start earning big bucks, only to see them taken by the government and all manner of other leaches.

    But the only show I really enjoy (the few times I waste my time watching it (I'm rather a PBS & NightLine kinda guy) is Ferguson's show with Geoff the robot. Why? He doesn't care about sucking up to ANYONE. And he's completely fresh every night, albeit a bit crazy like a British comedy. But I hated his character on the Drew Carey show. And I really didn't like his show's predecessor any more than the other C-List late-show hosts. What had he done previously to have been hired, been a handsome C-List school QB?

    As for the rest? WHY ARE THEY EVEN ON? Fat-Boy Kimmel was a bit funny for the first few years, maybe 2 or 3… then he got to the point he treated everybody like shit (well, his fat-assed cousin Sal did, typically). Glad JK finally lost some weight. Loved and still love his mum and aunt Chippie and female cousin. Hot! But not worth watching, as they're rarely on. Dickie! Bostones!!! Cleo and the band ROCK. Gotta give 'em credit & props. Whatever the hell that means. RIP, Uncle Frank. Related or not in real life, he was the best. Yo Aunt Chippie… now you're free to mingle and chat amongst yourself…

    Of course, Chelsea has some nice bubs, but that's hardly enough reason to warrant watching and sitting through her drivel (or that of her co-horts and that fat little turd what's-his-name).


  • ChipsRDown

    It's funny because Conan is a smart guy, he's funny off the cuff …… but he doesn't seem to understand that people just don't like his goofball antics and his boring, inane chatter. He says the same stupid things for 15 years now at the start of his show. I don't get it why he just won't make some changes

  • LAVA89

    Craig Ferguson actually IS from the Stand-Up world (albeit European). There's no way you can do a completely ad-libbed monologue without having that kind of experience. And just because Craig was on a sitcom doesn't mean he didn't have experience in Stand-Up, much like Drew Carey was a stand up who happened to get his own show(s). But yes, I would agree that most of the rest, like Fallon and Conan, do not have that experience.

  • Cd3dnw

    Leno is the only one that has ever made me laugh. I never got Conan or letterman.

  • Mike

    Everyone said the Tonight Show would end after Johnny Carson and IT DIDN'T.