How will TV historians judge Jay Leno?
The legacy of Johnny Carson was already filed and ready for perusal long before the amateur magician from Nebraska hung up his microphone in May, 1992 after nearly 30 years of hosting The Tonight Show.
Carson's imprint on television history---forget just Tonight---was plainly indelible about 10 years into his run, when the show moved from New York to Burbank. So the next 20 years were spent building on a legacy that saw the unofficial launch of countless stand-up comedians' careers and the cementing of various other entertainers into the public's consciousness.
That, plus Carson's own star grew so bright that we were blinded by it when he walked away from the studio and into retirement.
But what about Leno, whose final show as Tonight's host for 22 years was recorded on Thursday?
When Carson took the mantle in 1962, the show was eight years old and had been hosted by Steve Allen (1954-57) and Jack Paar (1957-62). Television was still in the midst of carving a swathe in pop culture. It was more than a year before the medium grew up fully with its hour-by-hour coverage of the Kennedy assassination.
Carson had the advantage of being able to use the show as his own piece of modeling clay, because when Allen and Paar hosted it, not nearly as many people were watching.
This was not the case with Leno, who took over in 1992 in a much stickier fashion, having been the winner in a two-horse race for the show's reins with David Letterman.
So there were more than a few crossed eyes watching Tonight when Leno took over. Many viewers were in one of two camps---Leno's or Letterman's. Those in the latter, no doubt, wouldn't have been unhappy if Leno crashed and burned.
Carson's fingerprints were all over everything when he hosted Tonight, from the opening monologue to the iconic interview moments to the Mighty Carson Art Players and to the audience participation games.
Leno's iconic guest moments were far fewer, and it's uncertain how many stand-up careers he truly launched. Leno's imprint pretty much was reduced to the jokes in the monologue, but some of that wasn't his fault, because Carson's team were like gold miners who didn't leave Leno's people much to discover.
Still, hosting a show for 22 years is nothing to sneeze at. The ratings may have dipped at times, but to be fair, the viewing pie was sliced into many more pieces during Leno's run than when Carson ruled late night.
Sadly, Leno will be largely remembered for two things when it comes to Tonight: the mini-controversy in the way he took over (the tiff with Letterman) and the way he regained the show from Conan O'Brien after a brief foray into the 10:00 p.m. time slot.
It's unfortunate, because those who had long moved on from the way Leno's run started, were either moved to be against him yet again when the O'Brien mess happened, or if they were too young to recall the bumpy beginning, framed O'Brien as victim.
Neither cast Leno in a good light, obviously.
If the body of Leno's work on Tonight is to be judged solely on what happened on camera, then he acquitted himself well, even if his humor was hardly cutting edge. If the off-camera nonsense is taken into account as well, then Jay Leno will be forever known as a polarizing character whose agenda was perhaps less than gracious at times---an opportunist who should never have come back once O'Brien was given Tonight.
Regardless, Jimmy Fallon is on the clock. It's unlikely that he'll do the show for anywhere near Leno's 22 years. And that, in of itself, is at least one feather in Jay's cap.