It is strange and mysterious and odd and weird and...altogether fitting that Jay Leno's last day at "The Tonight Show" is also Michael J. Fox's last day at NBC (if you're just catching up, "The Michael J. Fox Show" has been canceled and remaining episodes will be burned off elsewhere...)
And this all means "what?"
With your forbearance, let me take a stab at that question: What it means is that today is NBC's final and irrevocable break with the past, a good and profitable past that was once symbolized by Michael J. Fox, and after about 1995, also Jay Leno. It means that there is now no looking back -- and don't expect an extremely old-skewing "new" Cosby show anytime soon...
Old is out. New is in.
But here's another thing to keep in mind: Organizations, especially sprawling complex ones like NBC can never entirely shed their DNA, even if they fervently wish to, especially when that DNA is part of a process (call it institutional habit) that drags it down. NBC, more than the other networks, has long been characterized by an East Coast/West Coast divide, with each coast (Burbank, New York) casting wary glances back and forth at each other. When Johnny Carson moved from New York to Burbank in 1972, the West Coast officially prevailed. But when "The Cosby Show" helped rescue the entire organization, power shifted back to this coast, because of course "Cos" was shot in Queens, at the Kaufman Astoria Studios.
But since Comcast has taken over, run by two decidedly east coast guys -- Brian Roberts and the exec directly in charge of NBC, Steve Burke -- power has resettled back here, and with "The Tonight Show" about to relocate, the shift is complete. New York wins... (Of course, "The Michael J. Fox Show" is shot here, which would appear to refute this theory, except the numbers were so bad, that this fate was essentially inescapable.)
I bring all this up because the corporate divide has wrought a certain corporate ambivalence in this hand-off, or at least that's my suspicion. There are people at NBC -- and not necessarily Leno by the way but many others -- who believe this whole thing may be premature: That Leno is leaving a show that remains solidly No. 1 and is handing it to someone, Jimmy Fallon, who will hold little appeal to the millions in between both coasts who continue to cherish Leno's essentially corn-fed humor.
...That NBC already has enough problems -- witness Fox -- and why make another one where no problem exists?
...That the big issue is rebuilding prime time, and not late night ...
...That this whole thing is the equivalent of opening another line of battle, when the army's already got its hand full with the first one...
Nevertheless, as Jay Leno prepares to go in a few hours and Jimmy Fallon prepares his entrance, there may be one major compensatory factor here that no one has yet paid attention to, and which may place Fallon's "Tonight" in a far stronger position than a continued Leno-hosted one in the not-too-distant future: David Letterman...
Letterman is almost certainly in his last contract, which means CBS will have to begin rebuilding its own late night franchise sooner than later. There is no obvious successor, and I am beginning to suspect that Craig Ferguson will not be the next host of "Late Show." Meanwhile, "Late Show's" ratings are under intense pressure, with the success of "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" at ABC...
The real story, in fact, is at CBS, not NBC. At least NBC may finally have a clear road map into the future, even if there is company-wide (or West Coast) concern that this is happening too fast, too soon.
And what of Jay? I'm told by people who have spoken with him that he's actually OK with this whole turnover, and has none of the bitterness from the last time.
Leno -- I'm told -- is actually kind of pleased that he's leaving on top and not staying at the party one or two years too long... Sometime's it is best to leave the party while the party host is still happy to have you there, and not an hour later when he or she has to call the police to get rid of you.
NBC is making this move simply because of Jay's current strength, odd or counterintuitive as that may seem. You want to hand off "The Tonight Show" to the next host when it is in a position of strenght - not when it's gasping for air.
So, whether most anti-Leno critics realize it or not, Leno's done a good job holding this franchise together over the past 22 years, a very good job. The time has now arrived for the new guy -- who will just happen to be based in one of the most exciting cities in the world.
"The Tonight Show" franchise and its future - and the new host - actually look pretty good from where I sit.