A Momentous (If Not Especially Memorable) Night in Late-Night History, 32 Years Later

Memorial Day has some special significance for late-night television; you might call even it call it Judgement Day.

For some late-night fans, “Mis-Judgement Day” might also qualify.

Jay Leno’s premiere as the new permanent host of NBC’s Tonight Show took place on Memorial Day, 1992. (The actual date was Monday, May 25.)

Going live that night to underscore the significance of the event, Jay walked out from behind a pointlessly animated assemblage of curtains to a sustained ovation. The host accepted the audience’s embrace with obvious appreciation but also a bit of self-deprecation. When he finally calmed the reception down, he delivered his first line:

“Let’s see how you all feel in 30 years!”

It’s actually been 32; but OK, let’s do it.

YouTube player

What can we tell about Leno and NBC and the sturm und drang of late-night history set off by that long-ago first Tonight Show with Jay Leno?

For one thing, watching the tape back, one might easily discern that Leno was succeeding Johnny Carson, just three days after the emotionally celebrated finale which concluded Johnny’s 30-year run.

That was where Jay’s reference to 30 years came in. Leno was alluding to the unlikely prospect of living up to Carson’s spectacular record of success.

But Carson was not overtly mentioned there. Nor in any other comments Jay made that night.  Some staff members had urged him to salute Johnny in some way during the show. Jay said he wouldn’t because the showrunner didn’t want to.

NBC’s CEO, Bob Wright, even called that new Tonight Show showrunner, Jay’s manager Helen Kushnick, and suggested they should take a moment to acknowledge Johnny. Kushnick flatly rejected the idea. She enjoyed, as her brief tenure demonstrated on other occasions, serving up revenge ice cold. (In the months-long farewell parade of favorite Carson guests, no one had invited Jay to participate and Helen was not pleased.)

Nobody expected Jay to mention David Letterman, the other NBC late-night star and long-time Leno comedy colleague whom NBC had passed over.

All of that drama, and much more, was muted that night.

Instead, the Leno premiere made several moves to separate Jay’s new version of Tonight from Carson’s old version, which Kushnick disdained as old hat.

Moves like hiring the jazz-oriented band led by Brandon Marsalis to erase the stodgy “Big Band” sound associated with Doc Severinsen, Carson’s band leader.

The night’s musical guest also signaled Kushnick’s new approach; the contemporary singer/dancer Shanice seemed intended to send a message that Carson didn’t invite this kind of artist on.

But having an economics reporter, Robert Krulwich, on to explain CEO salaries seemed a throwback to having authors in the final segment of the old 90-minute version of Tonight (although Krulwich was surprisingly entertaining.)

Jay certainly emphasized the monologue, as Carson always had. Setting a standard he would keep throughout his run,  fired off a fusillade of jokes, 18 rapid-fire gags. The references are dated now, of course—Ross Perot, Dan Quayle, Murphy Brown, Desert Storm—but Jay’s style, pumping up a punchline by pushing his voice up, or getting faux angry, was set in stone.

And the ratio of good to weak jokes was about typical. Good one about Quayle thinking: “Where would I have been without my father…Where? Probably Vietnam.” Weak one: Los Angeles looters were returning some items, “In fact, KFC announced someone had returned five of the 11 secret herbs and spices.”

A taped comedy bit, never Jay’s strength, was also uninspired.

A high point was having Billy Crystal as first guest. His evident pleasure in an old friend’s success elevated the moment. But Billy also opened an awkward door. Referencing Bette Midler’s farewell song to Carson four nights earlier, he mentioned the verboten “Johnny,” and suggested Jay should get “Johnny money” in a song parody of “You Made Me Love You.”

“You made me first guest; I didn’t wanna do it/My agent really blew it.”

Crystal also went right to the much publicized “feud” kicked up by another late-night rival, Arsenio Hall, who had famously promised a foot-oriented assault on Jay

Crystal sang: “And though it’s crass, you will kick Arsenio’s ass.”

Was it a great first show? Not really, but it represented Jay Leno fairly. The comedy was heavily joke-oriented, and skewed toward mainstream topics derived from the news. Ground-breaking, more conceptual humor, in the style of Letterman or Conan O’Brien, was not on the menu and never would be.

In the succeeding months, Kushnick’s cutthroat booking tactics would alienate Hollywood and lead NBC to fire her and tiptoe to the edge of replacing Jay with Dave.

But that didn’t happen. Leno eventually hosted The Tonight Show for 21 years, with the Conan-interruptus period breaking up his run. After the initial Letterman surge on CBS, Leno was the consistent ratings winner in late night.

He experienced significant slights: little Emmy recognition (his Tonight Show did win once); sour comments from some corners of the comedy world about being him bland and risk-averse. Marsalis quit after a few years and gave a mean-spirited interview about not being willing to “kiss the ass of the host,” even saying he “despised” Leno.

And the conflicts with Letterman and O’Brien surely bruised him, though he rarely showed it. Leno took solace in his ability to outwork rivals, if not outshine them.

The premiere was typical for being popular and enjoyable for a large section of late-night viewers, though not particularly memorable. Memorable shows were not Jay’s chief motivation.  Winning was.

And he did kick Arsenio’s ass.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *