Feb 08 Written by 

Bye, Jay: What Jay Leno Meant to a Writer

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I will miss seeing Jay Leno; seeing him each weeknight reassured me, as if he were a friend or, God help me, a husband, a good one: worked hard,  talked to me for 12 minutes on weeknights, liked laughter, didn’t cheat, maintained his hair, paid for his own expensive hobby of car-collecting – dependable, and devoted (his last words on Tonight were “I’m coming home, honey”), and that added up to a chick magnet for women of his demographic, average age 57.8.

So I was always glad to see him and devoted to him, up to a point. I switched off the TV after Jay performed what had been written or engineered for him: the monologue and the comic segues that preceded the interviews with celebrities--who were as interchangeable as cold cuts, too often flogging their new books. 


“Watching Jay Leno,” as opposed to watching Tonight, was a marker in my day, a coffeeless break. I heard I should be watching David Letterman, the verbal sophisticate, but moody masters of the language such as he are not good marriage material. Jay’s ejections from Tonight hosting were his only career catastrophes, and his first forced departure was redeemed when viewers were repelled by Conan O’Brien, a chalk outline of a comic. Jay was let go for doing nothing worse than aging. The word “entertain,” at its root, means “to hold together.” In our culture, only musicians and Muppets (Jimmy Fallon's show is like Sesame Street) seem to be able hold together the aging and youth.

From a writer’s point of view no TV personality was as professional as Jay, or it seemed so by comparison with the intensive-care wards of Today, The View or Kathie Lee and Hoda, whose improvisations struggled even to be banal -- because they HAD NO WRITERS. With Jay, at 10:35 p.m., came the hours when working late bordered on working too late. I knew I ought to get up and do something else. Watching Jay Leno was my something else, my sanity bubble.

Jay featured on his final show his old friend Billy Crystal. Crystal, unbelievably, had a new book to flog and flogged it. It was like flogging your book at a funeral. What interested me was Crystal’s recalling their old days in Boston as ambitious beginners. Jay had sought him out. This is a facet Jay didn’t show on TV: his ambition. You don’t become Tonight’s host by waiting for Godot. Jay nodded and didn’t say much. Maybe he’s holding it back for a book.

Catherine Rankovic

Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.