Jimmy Fallon’s a confident guy. He let Jay Leno take over his monologue on last night’s The Tonight Show, even though Leno has a history of stealing the show away from others. That’s like a chicken asking a fox to drive it to the airport, or something.
Leno’s unadvertised return to the show he hosted for twenty-odd years proves he’s still got it—”it” being the ability to make us change the channel as quickly as possible. Of course we might be in the minority with that opinion, as Leno’s Tonight Show routinely beat its competition in the ratings for the better part of two decades. Those fans (assuming he had real fans and not just people who forgot to change the channel after the local news) are probably excited about Leno’s return, even if it’s just for one night. And I get that—as a lifelong Letterman devotee, I’d be excited to see him pop up on Colbert on a random weeknight. Nobody expects that to happen, though, because Letterman was pretty clear about basically retiring for good when he left his CBS show back in May. Like his mentor Johnny Carson, Letterman doesn’t appear interested in upstaging the following generation of talk show hosts. It’s very fitting with Leno’s public persona that he was willing to accept Fallon’s invitation to do a Tonight Show monologue—if you believe the chatter and Bill Carter books, Leno can’t really walk away from the public spotlight the way Carson did. There were a lot of rumors about other networks courting Leno for some kind of talk show when Fallon was announced as his successor, although NBC has locked him down with a new car show on CNBC. (That’s why he was on The Tonight Show, basically: to promote Jay Leno’s Garage.) After the way Leno undermined Conan O’Brien’s short stint on The Tonight Show and convinced NBC to hire him in the first place instead of Letterman, it’s not hard to believe he’d somehow be itching to take the show back on a permanent basis. Of course Fallon has a reason to be confident about that not happening: he’s easily the most popular host in late-night tonight, getting better ratings than his competitors and also pulling a larger audience than Leno did during his post-Conan return to the show. Fallon can look gracious and respectful by bringing the old host on stage without worry.
Watch the clip above if you miss Leno or his old-school jokes, or if you just want to remember why you stopped watching late-night talk shows years ago.