Jay Leno Passes the Torch to Jimmy Fallon, or Lights a Fire With It

Jimmy Fallon Jay Leno Split - Key art - H 2013
Mark Seliger/NBC; Jeff Riedel/NBC

Jimmy Fallon Jay Leno Split - Key art - H 2013

As we all try to digest the Jay Leno-to-Jimmy Fallon transition, would it cross over into the realm of overly cynical to say, “I’ll believe it when I see it”?

Clearly Leno has earned no more than blatant skepticism given the whole Conan O’Brien flap and his legendarily over-aggressive play to take over for Johnny Carson when he and David Letterman were being considered for the coveted Tonight Show job.

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Surely cutting a video where he acts all hurt about the Fallon rumors and then gazes forlornly out of a window doesn’t mitigate his past, right? You’re not that gullible, are you? And thus, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Now, it would take an epic, destructive ego to renege on this latest transition (and let’s not forget that NBC was just as culpable as Leno was during the Conan debacle). But who among us can imagine that Leno would somehow, in the eleventh hour, make a play to stay? Seems doubtful.

But before all the history is written on Leno’s late-night career, we’d all be gullible and possibly insane to rule the man out for some other late-night gig somewhere other than NBC. Anywhere. What part of Leno’s personality and his past deeds lead you to believe he’s going to be happy to retire? What makes you so sure that he’s going to be tinkering with his cars and finally relaxing in life? This is a man who clearly loves the spotlight and hasn’t shown any real ability or motivation to leave it.

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So let’s hold off on the career retrospectives.

However, the “official” announcement does create some interesting possibilities in late night. First and foremost, CBS should absolutely be in Letterman’s office trying to get him to stay for one more year. Letterman might want more, of course, and that’s not a bad contract for CBS to agree to, either.

Why? Because Fallon could very well be a failure in this transition. Not a flop -- not an outright disaster. He’s established. He has an audience. But he doesn’t have that 11:35 p.m. audience just yet. And they might not be ready for him. You can’t look at Leno and then look at Fallon and think, “That’s a seamless transition for the audience.”

So, yes, CBS should be diligent in convincing Letterman that a real opportunity exists. For all of Fallon’s pluses, he still seems more Late Night than Tonight if only because the Tonight audience might not be ready for him, whether he’s ready or not.

Letterman could benefit from that transition. And of course the biggest winner here could be Jimmy Kimmel, who already has a running start on the younger demo and will be that much more established and accepted in the role by the time Fallon takes over.

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Now, part of the whole keep-Letterman-in-play strategy goes against what I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how Stephen Colbert is the perfect replacement for Letterman and CBS should waste no time in making that overture. I still believe that, and were it to come about, I have no doubt that Colbert would crush Fallon and NBC in the process and provide Kimmel with a threat he otherwise would not be facing.

In fact, a week after I wrote that Colbert-is-the-future column for The Hollywood Reporter, talk show legend Dick Cavett also endorsed the idea in a New York Times opinion column.

Since Cavett knows a little bit about late-night history and is a great judge of talent, I’ll take that as validation -- and CBS should make itself busy with the idea.

And yet, you can’t ignore that it would be a whole lot easier just to extend Letterman.

All of these machinations and talks of transition are interesting but not remotely as interesting as the X factor that is Leno. Seriously, talk about a guy who’s got himself a year to not only go on a victory tour but to completely and utterly mess up NBC’s best-laid plans. Would he do that to -- as their recent video suggests -- his good buddy Fallon?

That sound you hear is O’Brien laughing maniacally and rolling on the floor.

We’ll have plenty of time to assess whether Fallon can be successful at 11:35 p.m. with his brand of humor and music-heavy, pop-culture-centric humor. But the early take surely must be that it’s not a natural transition given the Tonight audience, and it may be bumpy, no matter Kimmel’s head start or even the presence of a lingering Letterman.

And we’ll also have loads of time to assess whether Seth Meyers would work in the Late Night slot and whether letting Lorne Michaels dictate the path of transition for NBC’s late-night empire is a good idea.

But right now, at this minute, we’ve got the official Jay Leno Goodbye Tour slated to start.

It’s in writing. What could possibly go wrong?

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine