Jay Leno stands as one of the longest-running comedy talk show hosts of all time. Leaving his job as the host of The Tonight Show, he leads late-night ratings, and understandably so.
These are just a few of the things that have made him great and that his viewers will miss when he’s gone.
1. His way of making us aware of what we don’t know
One of Leno’s most popular segments was Jaywalking, where he walked around town asking people questions.
When most individuals gave responses, they showed at a least mild lack of information and understanding.
Even though the answers he got certainly don’t represent the entire population, they had an amazing way of making viewers aware of just how much they could stand to learn.
Even as it made people want to go out and get educated or pass information along, it made them happy for the knowledge they did have.
2. His ease in bringing the importance of language to light
In his Headlines segment, Leno presented newspaper articles, ads and other printed materials. The titles of whatever he showed were either misspelled, had logic errors or held eyebrow-raising connotations.
Whether it was a lawnmower labeled as a Buick or cake auctions benefitting diabetics, the clippings got everyone to appreciate the value of going through a good proof and thinking before putting something on paper. In a lot of cases, the pieces also showed that doing things in a rush and not getting facts or details simply doesn’t pay off.
3. His monologues
Okay, admittedly, some of what Leno said in his monologues made eyes roll, but what made them so amazing was the way he delivered them.
Instead of just a comedian passing along some stand-up jokes, Leno spoke directly to his audience, sprinkling the you’re-supposed-to-laugh lines throughout with the same ease as he waved hello.
He never looked uncomfortable, so even if what he said was corny, the audience was totally willing to forgive him for it and stayed comfortable, too.
His ability to turn monologue into dialogue in this way long has been the envy of his competitors.
4. His old-school comedy approach
Leno took over The Tonight Show for Johnny Carson, one of the most well-respected and talented comedians and television hosts of all time. The influence Carson and other professionals of the mid to late 20th century had on Leno shows big time.
There’s a sense that, even when he’s at ease, he still knows he has to work to get his laughs, and even though he sees the value in on-the-fly comedy, the idea that delivering no matter what through a prepared bit is still strong. That way of operating stands to be lost as a younger generation of comedians takes over.
5. The way he could take a hit
Leno’s chin might be big enough to handle a blow, but his internal “don’t quit” button is pretty huge, too. People absolutely love to rip on him for just about anything, but instead of walking away, Leno just keeps at it as if nothing even happened.
Even if you’ve hated him, he’s always been there to hate, a sort of safety relief valve you can open and direct all your rage on. His willingness to absorb the public’s shots shows a lot of ego and confidence but also a love for his art.
6. The rivalry between Leno and David Letterman
Both Leno and Letterman have been in the comedy industry for decades now, and for years they’ve been bantering back and forth, throwing barbs at each other.
Unlike other celebrity rivalries that end in warm-and-fuzzy reconciliation, the one these two comedy giants have is very real and doesn’t show any signs of ending soon.
In fact, as Leno prepared to take his exit, Letterman put out a Leno-themed Top 10 list to poke fun.
Watching the punches get thrown was part of the entertainment, and now, one of the heavy hitters is leaving the ring.
7. His respect of all his guests
Although Leno certainly wasn’t afraid to ask his guests what the Hades they were thinking, he never outright mocked anyone on his show the way other comedians have.
Whether this behavior was just more of his old-school attitude about how to treat people or an attempt to look more professional isn’t clear, but guests were willing to come on his show because they knew they’d leave still feeling like human beings.
Sandra Bullock made it a point to emphasize how well Leno had treated her during his farewell show, even tearing up about it.
8. His awareness of the need to work
Even so, he’s different from a lot of other celebrities in that he’s always conscious of how easily that money could disappear.
In the documentary Comedian by Jerry Seinfeld, Leno admits that his fear of financial loss motivates him to live just on his stand-up earnings rather than depend on what he earns from television.
That drive to both earn and save has earned Leno the respect of members of the working class, who relate to him.
9. Cop and Kitty
Leno, despite trying to get into acting roles early in the 1970s, isn’t at ease portraying characters. In true legend fashion, though, he takes a weakness and turns it into a strength through Cop and Kitty, a screwball skit where Leno plays a cop partnered with a cat.
His bad acting doesn’t seem at all out of place precisely because the entire concept of the segments is so ridiculous. Viewers can’t help but cheer him on as he and Kitty take on the bad guys. Leno even lets the cat be the smart hero.
10. The treatment of politics
Leno understood the serious nature of politics and would talk intelligently with politicians if he could (he chatted with President Barack Obama in 2009, for instance).
At the same time, he made a habit out of cluing into the scandals, hypocrisies and logical problems in political current events – these were never in short supply.
He used these areas as inspiration for some of his best jokes, targeting former President Bill Clinton more than anyone else throughout the course of his show.
He made people aware of what was happening in the world yet refused to let politicians feel 100% invincible.
11. His cleanness and subtlety
In just about every segment of the entertainment world, edgy is “in.” Producers and directors are always trying to outdo each other, going over the top to grab viewers’ attention.
Leno never really bought into this way of doing comedy, instead opting to stick with clean, fairly low-key segments that, although not particularly flashy, got the laughs he wanted.
He proved that you could be funny without all the extras. With him gone, there are very few entertainers left to fight for this more subdued approach and keep the comedy focused on skill rather than effect.
12. The way Leno helped others with the right questions
Part of any talk show host’s job is to ask guests questions, but some hosts shy away from more controversial issues, hoping for a smooth interview or segment.
Leno was willing to ask potentially inflaming questions – for example, he asked Hugh Grant what he was thinking after Grant was caught with a prostitute – but because of his demeanor, people opened up in the hot seat and he got real answers.
In Grant’s case, Leno’s question saved his career, giving him a chance to own up to what he had done and move on.
13. Celebrity Jeopardy
In Leno’s version of Jeopardy, guests impersonated well-known people. Instead of showing off intelligence, the answers the guests gave spoke not only to current events and facts, but also to cultural expectation.
This segment was also a gem on the show because it allowed Leno to work in concert with other comedians, showcasing their skill in delivery and timing while Leno himself took a more humble seat as the host who merely revealed whether answers were correct.
14. Dealing with the Public
This segment features real-life 911 calls and video surveillance films made across the country.
The calls and videos are all of people interacting with police about trivial, non-crime issues, such as getting a bad haircut.
Although your first reaction to the content is to think of the people in the clips as morons, Leno actually does something highly valuable for public service officers in showing what they have to go through to keep law and order on a regular basis.
Plus, similar to Jaywalking, you end up feeling better about yourself after watching.
15. Fake spokesperson auditions
In this segment, Leno’s staff members ask random individuals off the street to act as spokesperson for made-up products. What makes the skit really work is that it plays on your perception of what should and should not be advertised, turning the current marketing standard completely on its head.
The products Leno comes up with are ludicrous, yet the “spokespeople” go at their auditions with sincere enthusiasm. The segment is hilarious, but even as you laugh, you understand that there’s a grain of desire in just about everyone to succeed and get in the spotlight.