Where’s Bette When You Need Her, Jay?

News Telegram
See you later, Jay – earlier in the day

Time was, a major change in the late-night television landscape was a big deal. Now, with households having more ways than ever to fill a drowsy hour flopped in front of a screen – DVDs, TiVo, video games, Letterman, the Internet, etc. all vie for our (in)attention – Jay Leno’s signing off tonight after 17 years on “The Tonight Show” is something of a yawner.

However the Massachusetts native crafts his exit tonight, it will be a far cry from the sincere sense of loss the country felt when his predecessor, Johnny Carson, signed off in 1992. After 30 years soothing a simpler America to sleep, a tearful Carson was serenaded on his next-to-last show by Bette Midler as part of a classy, genuine good-bye that seems also to have gently closed the door on an era.

Leno will be funny tonight, perhaps sentimental, certainly goofy, affable and cautiously edgy – the way he always is. But it’s unlikely his signoff will offer much meat for the long-term memory – his show just doesn’t do that. His replacement, the smart comic Conan O’Brien, also from the Boston area, could rejuvenate “Tonight,” but the show’s secure grip on popular culture enjoyed by Carson, Jack Paar and Steve Allen has likely slipped away forever.

Leno or no, no one’s got a lock on late night anymore. In the fall, he’ll try his luck with punch lines in prime time with the “The Jay Leno Show” at 10 p.m. That’s an interesting idea, but those who are barely paying attention to NBC’s maneuverings – and that’s a lot of people – will likely say, “That’s funny” when the new show starts.

As in ”¦ “That’s funny, I thought he left.”

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