Final curtain: Is Jay Leno's retirement from 'Tonight' the end of an era? Readers speak up

Final curtain: Is Jay Leno's retirement from 'Tonight' the end of an era? Readers speak up

February 6th, 2014 by Susan Pierce in Chattnow Outabout

Jay Leno is retiring as host of "The Tonight Show" after 22 years.

Jimmy Fallon

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

'TONIGHT SHOW' 6.0

Jimmy Fallon is the sixth host of "The Tonight Show" in its 59 years on television. Here are some of the changes he's making.

• 1. New location: The show will move from California back to New York City, where it will be taped in the same studio in which Jack Paar and Johnny Carson hosted "The Tonight Show." Carson moved the talk show to Burbank in 1972.

• 2. Name tweaking: The new title will be "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." It currently is "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." Fallon told TV Guide that Paar and Carson used "starring" when they were hosts and this is his tip of the hat to the show's origins.

• 3. New house band: Fallon is bringing The Roots and announcer Steve Higgins with him from his current show "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."

• Launch date: Monday, Feb. 17.

• First guests: Will Smith and U2

Source: TV Guide, various Internet sites

'TONIGHT SHOW' HOSTS

• 1. Steve Allen (1955-57)

• 2. Jack Paar (1957-62)

• 3. Johnny Carson (1962-92)

• 4. Jay Leno (1992-2009)

• 5. Conan O'Brien (2009-10)

• 6. Jay Leno (2010-14)

• 7. Jimmy Fallon

Source: Wikipedia

These celebrities with Chattanooga roots have appeared on "The Tonight Show."

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

HOMETOWN CONNECTIONS

Among the celebrities with Chattanooga roots who have appeared on "The Tonight Show" are: Samuel Jackson, Ralphie May, Lauren Alaina and Usher.

Dennis Haskins

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

A WORD FROM "SAVED BY THE BELL'S" MR. BELDING

Dennis Haskins, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga alumnus known to multiple generations of TV viewers as Principal Belding on "Saved by the Bell," was never a guest on "The Tonight Show." But he says he was around the show's hosts and crew for almost 30 years.

He has been on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" three times; most notably when Fallon picked the UTC Mocs as his underdog to cheer for during March Madness 2009. (Remember "John Shulman: Don Juan of the SoCon"?)

Here are Haskins' reminiscences of backstage at "The Tonight Show" in Burbank.

"A friend of mine from acting class, Kevin Quinn, was a stage manager. His dad, Bobby, was the director of 'The Tonight Show' for many years with Johnny Carson. I got to go visit occasionally. While never on the show, I got to meet many great guests, from Michael Buble to Kenny Chesney, Charles Barkley, Dolly Parton, Alabama and Garth Brooks -- they all came through Burbank.

"Once 'Saved by the Bell' started on Stage 3 at NBC Burbank, we shared a hallway with Stage 1, where Carson was finishing up his amazing run on 'The Tonight Show.' Stages 1 and 3 shared the makeup area, so many 'Tonight Show' staffers would come and go through there. Every day, (Carson) came by my dressing room; I would say 'hello' and he would say, 'How are you doing, young man?'

"About that time, a young comic from the Northeast started guest hosting 'The Tonight Show.' His name was Jay Leno. He was doing a pretty good job and would come down that same hallway and say 'hello' to us.

"Our next season on 'Saved By the Bell,' we moved to Stage 9 at NBC Burbank. That was the year Carson retired and Jay Leno took over. It was quite a historic transition."

Haskins adds that he has gotten haircuts every four weeks for more than 20 years from Franz Hahn, Jay Leno's makeup man and former head of the NBC makeup department.

Former Chattanoogan Liz Morin was an NBC page at "The Tonight Show" in June 1992 when Jay Leno became the host after Johnny Carson.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Jay Leno makes his final sign-off from late-night TV tonight.

Again.

But unlike the brief Conan O'Brien seat-swap of 2009-10, this time it appears permanent.

Leno is retiring as host of "The Tonight Show" after 22 years, passing NBC's late-night crown to Jimmy Fallon, currently host of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." While Leno quits tonight, Fallon won't take his seat behind "The Tonight Show" desk until Monday, Feb. 17. Seth Meyers, who is replacing Fallon on "Late Night," will debut on Monday, Feb. 24.

Over two decades, Leno has welcomed several Chattanoogans into his Burbank studio -- the famous (Usher, Samuel L. Jackson) as well as newcomers just starting out (comedian Ralphie May, singer Lauren Alaina.)

"When I went on Leno, it was right after 'Idol,' so it was like this crazy blur! But Jay was really sweet and came out and said hello to me in the dressing room before the show, and we chatted awhile," recalls Alaina about her visit in May 2011, the night after she came in second to Scotty McCreery on Season 10 of "American Idol."

"Jay's hilarious. He even told my Mom he thought she was cute! Everyone on the set was really nice, and I had so much fun singing with Ricky Minor and his band," says the Rossville native, now living in Nashville.

Notre Dame High School and UTC graduate Liz Morin worked as a page at "The Tonight Show" as one of her first jobs in the entertainment business. She is now co-owner of Showbiz-Ro Music in Nashville.

"I worked the last six weeks of Johnny Carson and the first four months of Jay," Morin says. "I loved Jay -- so nice."

Michael Brown, a McCallie School sophomore, says he got tickets for him and his parents, Mike and Debbie Brown, to attend a "Tonight Show" taping last June while vacationing in California. The Browns arrived two hours early to ensure they got a seat in the studio. Michael Brown said Leno's passion for classic cars was evident in the many photos hung around the studio.

As viewers know, the host starts each show by greeting as many studio visitors as possible with high-fives or handshakes. Michael Brown was in among the fans crowding the stage that night and recalls Leno asking, "Hey, pal. How ya doing?" as they high-fived.

"Jay's really energetic and you can tell he really likes what he's doing. He likes meeting people, putting a smile on people's faces," says the 16-year-old.

END OF AN ERA?

Leno has spent most of his adult life as a late-night comic entertaining baby boomers.

"It is the end of an era," says Cheryll Smith, a retired state employee living in Chattanooga, of Leno's retirement. "I always watched Carson's monologue and Leno's. I will not be watching Jimmy Fallon."

When the Times Free Press asked readers on Facebook whether they will miss Leno or can't wait for Fallon, more than 200 responses came in. Votes for the two hosts were evenly divided; with Fallon edging out Leno by five votes. Surprisingly, though, the two NBC hosts accounted for 65 percent of the responses and the remaining 35 percent were endorsements for O'Brien, David Letterman and some still pining for the late Johnny Carson.

"I don't see it as the end of an era ... yet," says Cigna employee Steve Markum. "Jimmy Fallon may bring it to that end, though. Being of a newer generation, he will bring a different light to the show. Fallon doesn't impress me, therefore another personality would have better assured continuation of 'The Tonight Show' era. I'm old, though, I can remember Jack Paar for heaven's sake!"

"Love Jimmy Fallon, can't wait for him to take over," states Jessica Klaaren of Athens, Tenn. "Jay is too old and it's time for a new generation ... I know a lot of people under 40 who will start watching 'The Tonight Show' again."

Leno is 62, while Fallon is 39.

Chattanooga's Terry Denniston says she's "looking forward to watching Jimmy Fallon, whom I think will deliver an incredibly funny show -- much more Carson-like."

James Skates says, however, that he is "definitely a Leno fan and will miss his presence on 'The Tonight Show.' He is as iconic as Carson was."

"I'll miss Jay. He knew how to interview. Fallon will be good, and he'll bring new skits," says Donald Baker, a graduate of Gordon Lee High School.

Crystal Lee Watson was more cautious. "Tell Jimmy not to get too excited. We all know what happened last time Jay handed his show to someone else," she wrote.

LATE-NIGHT MUSICAL CHAIRS

Indeed, in the biggest brand-name debacle since Coca-Cola tried to sub New Coke for original Coca-Cola, NBC tried to replace Leno with a fresher, younger look. On the 50th anniversary of "The Tonight Show" in 2005, NBC announced that Conan O'Brien would be the new "Tonight Show" host in 2009. O'Brien was host of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," which had been airing in NBC's 12:37 a.m. timeslot since 1993.

In a recent interview with "60 Minutes," Leno said he was blindsided by NBC's announcement, saying he was called in and told he was being replaced in four years.

"It's like 'You're fired ... in four years!'" he joked in the CBS interview.

When it was time to go, Leno was still No. 1 in his time slot. He was made host of "The Jay Leno Show," and put on the air at 10 p.m. But fans didn't respond. They wanted to tune in to their weekly dramas at 10 p.m., not a variety talk show. There were reports of NBC affiliates complaining that Leno's talk show hurt ratings for their 11 p.m. newscasts, and O'Brien's viewer numbers on "The Tonight Show" were tanking.

Before a year had passed, NBC moved Leno back to his 11:30 p.m. timeslot. TMZ and other entertainment news sources reported that O'Brien was given no warning of the change. He was offered the option of another late-night time slot or leave the network; he took the latter and a payout. When his noncompete clause expired, he returned to talk-show television in November 2010 on TBS.

In almost a case of deja vu, Leno is being replaced by a younger, fresher comic again four years later.

"This time is different," Leno explained on "60 Minutes." "This time I was asked instead of told. This time it feels right," he said.

"Carson was about my age when he retired. You get to a certain age where you're the old guy," Leno said. "Jimmy is 24 years younger than I am. When I see him singing duets and dancing with Justin Timberlake, I can't do that. There's a generational and a tech shift in audiences today."

But Leno has no plans to rest on his laurels after tonight. He told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres that he plans to spend a lot more time in the two hangars at the Burbank airport that house his collection of cars and where he does a weekly webcast.

A stand-up comic for years before taking over the "Tonight" gig, he's going back to the road and already is booked for three consecutive stand-up gigs in Florida starting Friday night.

"I'm not going to do another late show, you can't re-create what we had on 'The Tonight Show,'" he said.

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.