When David Letterman signed off on CBS’ “The Late Show” Wednesday night, a bunch of A-listers turned up to bid him goodbye.
But one celebrity who didn’t show? Letterman’s friend-turned-nemesis, Jay Leno.
According to Letterman’s producers, the former host of NBC’s “Tonight Show” was invited but declined.
There may have been a good reason for Leno’s no-show. He retired from “Tonight” last year, and like Letterman, he got a sendoff from a roster of stars, including Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black and Carol Burnett. But Leno’s goodbye did not prompt anywhere near the affectionate outpouring that attended Letterman’s departure. (For what it’s worth, Letterman said on his show last week that he was invited to appear on Leno’s last “Tonight” but said no because he felt it would detract attention from Leno himself.)
Leno’s “Tonight” routinely beat Letterman in the ratings for the vast majority of the time they went head-to-head. But Leno was never a critical darling. From the time he started in late-night on NBC in the early 1980s, Letterman was considered an innovator. He subverted the showbiz conventions of late night; he poked fun at the high and mighty; he did absurd things like showcase Stupid Pet Tricks and toss TVs and other heavy objects out of high-rise windows just to watch them smash on the pavement below.
Leno was a near-universally admired stand-up comic, but an innovator he was not. He was a comedian in the Bob Hope mold, a reliable deliverer of snappy punchlines. He was also a friend to Letterman and frequent guest on the latter’s NBC show, where his “What’s my beef?” routines became a signature.
So after Leno took over “Tonight” in 1992, he came to be viewed as a pretender who had usurped the throne of Johnny Carson from the rightful heir, Letterman. The battle for that throne was so notorious it became an HBO movie. Letterman even joked about his thwarted “Tonight” bid on Wednesday night’s show.
And of course, the Shakespearean struggle over “Tonight” did not stop there. Last year was actually Leno’s second retirement. In 2009, NBC handed the show to Conan O’Brien, only to reverse itself and bring Leno back the following year. O’Brien quit the network for TBS and Leno came to be seen, for the second time, as a world-class spoiler of others’ careers. Whether that was fair or not hardly mattered. The masses still loved him, but Leno’s reputation in the entertainment industry was dealt a blow from which it has never recovered.
Letterman is hardly the world’s most cuddly celebrity. He almost never gives interviews (well, until his finale approached, anyway). He is famously prickly on-camera and off. In his early years he struggled to hide his disdain for guests he didn’t like (leading Cher, among others, to regard him warily). But his detachment was part of the act and made his fans love him even more. They saw Letterman as genuine. That was why he had enough credit in the bank to be the first talk-show host to return after the Sept. 11 attacks. That was why he was forgiven an embarrassing sex scandal involving female staffers that would have sunk another entertainer. For Letterman’s reputation, it was barely a blip.
So when they said goodbye to Dave on Wednesday, many fans felt they were seeing the last of something rare in entertainment: the real thing.
And that was a wake that Leno can be forgiven for wanting to skip.