Another chapter of the late night wars will come to a close tonight when Jay Leno signs off on "The Jay Leno Show," the much-maligned prime time show that has sputtered in the ratings, alienated NBC's local affiliates and contributed to Conan O'Brien's early exit from "The Tonight Show." Following tonight's episode, Leno will disappear for a few weeks while the network airs the Winter Olympics, and once all of the skiing, figure skating and curling is wrapped up, he'll come back for his second run as the host of "The Tonight Show."
On Tuesday night (February 9), Leno will welcome guests Ashton Kutcher and Bob Costas to his show for a send-off from the 10 p.m. time slot. He's not trying to be poetic with his final guests the way O'Brien was when he ended "The Tonight Show" a few weeks ago, but Kutcher and Costas are both excellent guests and should provide some entertaining fodder for Leno and his audience.
Looking back, "The Jay Leno Show" has been problematic since it launched back in September 2009. It was billed as a show that was going to revolutionize NBC's approach to programming, but in the end it was mostly the same batch of Leno-isms and late night traditions (the monologue, the wacky headlines, the movie-plugging interviews and the like). Still, that's not to say the prime time version of Leno didn't have some great and memorable moments, and although it didn't always make for good television, that test track stuff concept — which saw celebrities speeding around a track to try to beat each others' times — always seemed like a good idea waiting to become great.
On Monday night's show, Leno discussed the much-talked-about Super Bowl ad starring him, Oprah Winfrey and longtime rival David Letterman. "It was good to see my old friend," Leno said of his longtime rival. Letterman also referenced the ad during his monologue (stage manager Biff Henderson wanted to know if Leno was still in the building, as he wanted to give him a funny headline). Until O'Brien makes his inevitable return on a rival network to shake things up, the story in late night for the next few months will be the new showdown between Letterman and Leno, which should keep things interesting. As we've learned in the past few months, these guys are all at their best when their backs are against the wall and they smell a threat closing in.
But tonight's "The Jay Leno Show" probably won't be a melancholy farewell or a tearful goodbye. Leno will sit with his guests, bid a temporary adieu to his studio (he'll be filming "The Tonight Show" there when he returns) and wave goodbye. It'll be workmanlike and efficient — the Jay Leno way.