Watch a guy on late-night TV long enough and you begin to think you know everything about him -- including his next move. But not Jay Leno: What's next after a 22-year run at "Tonight" ends in a few hours? Your guess is as good as anyone's, maybe even Jay's.
But based on years of Leno-watching and educated TV guesswork, some options:
That part of the TV business that is highly profitable, hard-sell and a little bit low-rent. And, sure, syndicators have approached Leno about a late-night show on hundreds of TV stations around the country.
Good or bad move? Bad. Leno then goes from master of the "Tonight" universe to this? Unemployment would be better -- and he doesn't need the money.
There was once keen interest, long before Jimmy Kimmel came on the scene. What about a post-"Nightline" show?
Good or bad move? Not as idiotic as it sounds because ABC -- or rather corporate overseer Disney -- might envision Leno as a daytime, not late-night, fixture. Jay might not envision this.
The old "I'll Stick Around Until They Fire Jimmy" move, eh? Let's not be cynical. That is not going to happen. But there is another option -- hosting the occasional prime-time special, or more than occasional.
Good or bad move? Not exactly terrible. Leno's been good for NBC, and vice versa. Mutual loyalty, particularly when it has yielded vast wealth for both parties, has its benefits. The real problem, however, is with Jimmy Fallon: Having one's predecessor -- an unwilling one, in fact -- continue to hover around is unsettling for the new host. A clean break is best for all.
David Letterman will leave someday, and CBS will need a successor, even if it does have an able one already in-house (Craig Ferguson).
Good or bad move? An awful one. Leno, who turns 64 in April, is a great standup and a skillful host, but he is not the future of anyone's late-night franchise, least of all CBS'. (But don't be surprised if this has been raised in conversation at the network.)
So obvious is this option that it's almost become a standing joke among Leno pals ...
Good or bad move? Fox has evinced no interest in recent years in getting back to late night, and couldn't or wouldn't even swing a deal with Conan O'Brien -- who presumably would have been in line with a younger male demo. So let's just call this move "unlikely."
The History channel? USA? CNN? They've been mentioned, and even Jay made note of his interest -- perhaps serendipitous -- in a History gig.
Good or bad move? A good one, giving Leno freedom to do what he wants, and maybe even offer him a venue to showcase what he does best -- industrial-strength stand-up. But the numbers will be lower and hence A-list guests rarer. (Maybe just a pure comedy show then?)
What! You've never heard of "Jay Leno's Garage"? It's a major success for Leno, albeit hardly a full-time gig.
Good or bad move? Sure, fine, if he's ready to retire. He's not.
THE NO-TV OPTION
Could Jay stay off TV -- forever? I recently asked this question of an old and good Leno friend, comedian Jimmy Brogan. Said he: "It seems to be at this point that he's just gonna go do standup. There have been nibbles from a lot of syndicators and cable, but nothing that seems up to what 'The Tonight Show' was. If he did syndication, for example, it probably wouldn't be the same budget but less, and with fewer resources. It just wouldn't be the same show, and he's smart enough to know that." Leno, he adds, is "very practical and accepting of the ups and downs of life."
Good or bad move? Best of all -- for Leno. He's one of the best stand-ups in the land.