I Hate to See ‘Em Leave, But I Love to Watch ‘Em Go

I’m really looking forward to it. More for history than anything else. Jay Leno will say goodbye to The Tonight Show this week. For good, so we are lead to believe. We can do the autopsy of the Leno administration – that he was likeable but vanilla; almost so mainstream that it almost went in a roundabout way back to edgy-ness. Rather, I like to look at the last five minutes, the goodbye and good times that have yet to be uttered. Its one of my favourite things TV has to offer; the comedy show goodbye. Not the last episode of a sitcom, although those are really fun too. When comedians are forced to be earnest, I find it compelling. This is no time for Bieber zingers, this is stuff that can be said over an instrumental version of Sarah McLaughlin’s “In the Arms of the Angel”.

I grew up in a strict Eastern European influenced Catholic household, but late night TV was allowed, encouraged and celebrated. I got to watch Johnny Carson’s last Tonight Show. I guess I was 8 or so. Later I got to appreciate Johnny, but at the time when Leno would guest host, I preferred Jay. That night Johnny simply sat on stool and introduced old clips, as Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen fought back tears. I got to see the classic Carson clips and sort of appreciate him. Clips of him throwing an axe at the wooden target’s crotch, Jimmy Stewart telling dirty limericks, and something very odd to an 8-year-old regarding Don Rickles in a geisha house were all top shelf bits. But its tone was of sadness, in terms of both Johnny leaving and of Johnny having nothing left to give.

Saturday Night Live has farewells occur more often and they’re pretty good. The Phil Hartman goodbye was quite touching. The last sketch of night featured a Sound of Music spoof, ending with Hartman singing “goodbye…farewell…” slowly and softly as a sweaty Chris Farley curled up beside him. History has magnified this moment as they are both no longer with us. It will be really be difficult to top Kristin Wiig’s goodbye. Mick Jagger doing “Ruby Tuesday” as she did a brief yet heart-warming/wrenching dance number with each cast member ending with Lorne Michaels.

What will never be topped is Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show goodbye. He wasn’t leaving after a lengthy tenure, or to be a movie star. He left over…well, that’s up for debate, but ultimately it was managements’ mismanagement. Conan was a bitter, beaten, but not quite broken man. He was thrown out there to do a goodbye show when he had just done one from his Late Night show that served as graduation to the new program – one he did not want to leave. His last show featured one of my favourite phrases. That show he proclaimed, “We are going to have fun on television.” His end speech was part grace and defiance. In my own life I have received very few words of wisdom, I believe I have given more to others. Conan’s words were a great milieu of confession/pep talk/screw you/thank you. Ending with a Will Ferrell serenade of “Freebird”. Leno has already done a goodbye but that one was under duress.

Leno is in his mid-sixties and I question whether he is able to muster that kind of emotion on television. Seinfeld, Letterman, et al all say that Leno was the best stand up of his era. He was and is a touring and material making machine. I speculate that he can’t show emotion in part because of his generation belonging to the end of the John Wayne “boys don’t cry” archetype but more as a backlash to the style of show business he grew up with and then followed. He came after the Rat Pack/Ed Sullivan,  “This show is brought to you by Marlboro” time. This is captured in the SCTV sketch the Sammy Maudlin Show where the emotion is so insincere. Bobby Bittman spewing out catch phtrases and then pivoting to, “but in all seriousness folks”. Frank Sinatra had a variety show and Jerry Lewis had a talk show in the sixties and they would often have these overwrought moments of heavy-handed emotional outburst. “There are Yiddish words called Mensch in this business…and this guy right here…” And they would go on with embraces and crocodile tears which was not un-entertaining but unnerving. The era of comedy around the time of the first season of SNL quietly put an end to that. There were times when comics had to do a song in their act. That was a staple. I think it was done as filler, also because they wanted to show they had a heart but it just came off as…well maudlin. So I contend that Leno does not want to fall into that trap of emotional schlock, but he will have to do something. The challenge is to do something raw and thoughtful. He is a comedian so he shouldn’t have to. But what I hope does not happen is what the elite and intelligentsia of TV believe his style to be: appealing but hollow.

Raphael Saray is a broadcast journalist based in Northern Manitoba, Canada. He served two days as managing editor in chief for the Artic Radio Network News Division; leaving under pressure of the Saskatchewan School Board for erroneous reports. The reports themselves were quite erroneous but Saray will not apologise or retract; hoping it will all blow over.

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