Five years ago, Jay Leno fans could have asked NBC executives roughly the same question the host of “The Tonight Show” famously asked actor Hugh Grant: “What were you thinking?”
NBC bounced Leno from the show in 2009 in the hopes that Conan O’Brien would bring younger viewers to late night.
It was a disaster of historic proportions that led to Leno’s abrupt return.
Now that the 63-year-old Leno really had his final show Thursday night, Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner is thinking that NBC got it right this time by moving Jimmy Fallon to “Tonight” and sending Leno off to do comedy shows across the country.
“It is always sad to see the end of an era,” Toellner said. “But we are very excited about Jimmy Fallon. He’s overdue. I especially like the impressions he does and the characters he does. We certainly think that relates to a younger audience, as well as an older audience.”
“I think the timing is perfect,” Toellner added. “Unlike the last time, I think it has been handled very well.”
While Leno is proud that he kept “Tonight” No. 1 in late night nationally since taking over for Johnny Carson 22 years ago, despite NBC’s frequent prime-time problems, that hasn’t always been the case in Buffalo.
CBS’ “The Late Show with David Letterman” beat Leno in households and demographics for five years locally until November of 2008.
The continued closeness of the late-night race locally is evident by the four-rating book average in 2013. Letterman won by a tenth of a point in households, and Leno won by two-tenths in the age 18-to-49 demographic.
Letterman is helped here by Channel 4’s first-place 11 p.m. news, which gives him a stronger lead-in than Channel 2’s news. But at least Channel 2 gets higher ratings at 11 p.m. than most NBC affiliates.
Letterman has a huge advantage with critics, especially on the East Coast, who prefer his more sophisticated and edgier brand of comedy.
“Even though Jay is from Boston, he plays more to Middle America, and even though David is from Middle America (Indiana), he plays more East Coast,” Toellner said.
Buffalo really doesn’t fit perfectly in either category. It is in the Northeast, but many people believe that it has a Middle America sensibility, which makes it surprising that Leno isn’t more popular with TV audiences here.
All those jokes about our city – a Carson tradition that he continued – might not have helped. But Buffalo has reasons to love Leno, besides the many times he has performed in and around Western New York.
He visited here in 2007 as an invited guest of Jim and Mary Ann Sandoro, who wanted him to visit the Pierce-Arrow Museum that they run. During that visit, he munched on chicken wings at La Nova Pizzeria, which explains why a menu item – The Jay Leno Wing – is named for him.
He also donated a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was used to raise money in 2007 for the care of Buffalo Police Officer Patricia Parete, who last year died of wounds that had paralyzed her in a 2006 shooting.
Leno has gotten a big ratings bump here in his final week, and his show has been so loose and entertaining than even his critics might consider taking away their knives.
On Monday’s show, Leno joked that Fallon was there as a guest to help him pack. On the same show, beloved 92-year-old actress Betty White told him that NBC told her it no longer wanted her reality show “Off Their Rockers.”
“I guess you can relate to that,” cracked White.
On Tuesday, guest Matthew McConaughey thanked Leno for the simple advice the host gave him on his first appearance and said he uses it for all his jobs: “Just want to be here.”
In the week’s “awwwww” moment Wednesday, actress Sandra Bullock thanked Leno for all his kindness. “I felt special even when I felt insecure,” a tearful Bullock said of her frequent appearances on the show. “And everyone in this room and in this country, I think, felt that every day you’ve been in their homes.”
Fallon, 39, who moves from NBC’s “Late Night” to the “Tonight Show” career Feb. 17, also has a high likability factor. His humor is more mainstream than O’Brien’s, and he has the cool factor of attracting Justin Timberlake and Bruce Springsteen as frequent guests.
However, Fallon will have to be a bigger acquired taste to make “Tonight” work in Buffalo. CBS’ “Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson” won the four-rating book average in 2013 in households by two-tenths of a point here, while Fallon’s show won by the same margin in age 18-to-49 viewers that advertisers prefer.
Letterman will now compete with two relative youngsters in Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel.
Kimmel has made national demographic strides but is pretty much ignored in Buffalo. His program is a poor third here, with Channel 7’s weakness as an ABC affiliate a huge problem.
Leno “just wanted” to host “The Tonight Show” for 22 years and didn’t want to go away. Now that he has, the question is: Where will viewers go at 11:35 p.m. when Fallon joins the mix?
O’Brien may have given the best answer to that question several years ago when he spoke to a University at Buffalo audience. He said that when it comes to show business “nobody really knows” what is going to succeed.
If NBC late-night history has proved anything, it’s that anyone who thinks they do know is “off their rockers.”