Tonight Show's Jay Leno prepares to hand over the mic to Jimmy Fallon
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 tomorrow.
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 to Jimmy Fallon; and 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 déjà 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 lacklustre ratings.
But this time it's different, Leno contends, offering another hard fact: the older generation has to make way for the younger one. Fallon, 39, 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 February 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 any more. 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 excoriated 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.
Leno is planning to expand the comedy club gigs he never abandoned, the 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.
"It's hard to recreate 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 rival, David Letterman, had kind words for Leno during a SiriusXM interview on Friday. He spoke of calling Leno when his second Tonight departure was announced, their first conversation in several years. He was 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.