EDITORIAL: Leno often made Fresno his punchline, but we'll miss him

February 6, 2014 

"The Tonight Show" is leaving California and returning to its roots in New York — a seismic cultural shift that may — or may not — rattle many baby boomers.

When Johnny Carson took the helm in 1962, he brought the show to "Beautiful Downtown" Burbank, creating yet another California cultural touchstone.

He sat in the desk for 30 years. It is hard to overestimate the cultural impact Carson had in the 1960s. Along with John F. Kennedy and the fictional James Bond, Carson was the man that men wanted to be, and women wanted to be with. Dashing, quippy, handsome and wry, Carson seemed to be genetically programmed to be the host.

Then he left, and a war started. David Letterman, a deeply ironic former weatherman from Indiana, and Jay Leno, a hambone regular-guy comic from New York, went head-to-head to be selected as Carson's replacement. Leno won — and Letterman accepted an offer to host a show on CBS.

The battle was captured in the book "The Late Shift" and the HBO movie that it spawned. Asked about the movie, Letterman declared it "the biggest waste of film since my wedding photos."

Leno was California mellow and middlebrow; his Borscht Belt joke delivery, in which he restated the punchline in case you didn't get it, rankled some, but he also harkened back to a gentler moment in American comedy. In short, Leno worked for middle America, and he was amply compensated for it.

"The Tonight Show," under his reign, remained the go-to first stop for A-Listers, and was the No. 1 rated show in the time slot during his tenure. To illustrate the power of Leno, then-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger chose Leno's show as the venue for his announcement that he was running for governor of California. He didn't choose "Meet the Press."

Leno's 22-year run ended Thursday night. Leno will be replaced by the light, amusing and versatile Fallon, who is much in the Carson mode. Baby boomers will notice that the torch is being passed from an entertainer who is 63 to one who is not yet 40.

Lest we forget it's all about business, don't be surprised if California television and film industry lobbyists cite the departure of "The Tonight Show" later this year when they seek to extend and enlarge the current $100 million-a-year film tax credit to $400 million or $425 million a year, the amount offered by New York for productions.

New York helped cement the move by lavishing $20 million in film incentive credits at the owner of "The Tonight Show," cable giant Comcast. Corporations like tax breaks. But there are many reasons for a move. One might be a desire for greater ratings, or to placate a star. Fallon, a New York comic, no doubt wanted to be in Manhattan.

Leno was not a comedic innovator, but he kept "The Tonight Show" a national gathering spot at 11:30 p.m., the place where we can fluff up the pillows and decompress for an hour before we go to sleep.

Leno was a kind of lulling American Ambien, telling us a funny joke or two, along with showing us a movie star and a band we've heard of before. And that was good.

Even when he made fun of Fresno.


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