Take Heart, Jimmy: People Didn't Want Jay Leno to Host 'The Tonight Show,' Either

Dave Nemetz
Yahoo TV

Quick, which incoming "Tonight Show" host are these snarky comments about?

"... is dangerously near gushing at times over his guests."

"One of [his] bad habits is laughing at his own jokes, sometimes with a tee-hee giggle."

"... an acquired taste, a skilled and charming comedian who grows on you like some kind of comedic fungus."

"... a highly ingratiating fellow who tells a joke well, and that's about it."

"He's a nice guy, but he's going to bomb."

Nope, not Jimmy Fallon, although that'd be a good guess: Plenty of viewers are questioning Fallon's ability to host a TV institution like NBC's "The Tonight Show," which he'll take over starting Feb. 17. Yahoo TV comment boards are already filled with readers claiming that "Fallon will tank in the first year," that he "is not even close to being anywhere near as talented or sharp as Jay Leno," and that "Jimmy will never compare."

[Related: What's the Best 'Tonight Show' Advice Jay Leno Gave Jimmy Fallon?]

But no, the snarky comments at the top are actually about Jay Leno, when he took over "The Tonight Show" in 1992. It's easy to forget after a couple decades of late-night dominance (Leno's last "Tonight Show" airs this Thursday), but back then, many observers were saying the same things about him that they're now saying about Fallon.

Leno was 42 at the time (just three years older than Fallon is now), and he had an even tougher act to follow: the incomparable Johnny Carson, who helmed "The Tonight Show" for an astonishing 30-year run, making it the pop-culture landmark it now is.

Viewers at the time didn't want to let Johnny go. They lined up for weeks to get tickets to his final tapings. They wrote letters to NBC begging him to stay. "It's almost like they're addicted to him," said the NBC employee tasked with reading Carson's mail. "They're going, 'What am I going to do without you?'" A 1991 Gallup poll showed fans preferring Carson to Leno nearly 2 to 1, with even fans under 30 leaning heavily towards Carson.

Of course, we didn't have Internet comments back in 1992 (a simpler time, right?), but we did have letters to the editor, like this one to USA Today from Pati Bemis of Yakima, Washington: "I have a feeling the ratings will drop with Jay Leno. He doesn't have the charisma that Johnny has." And vaunted columnist Jimmy Breslin declared: "I imagine Leno is an extraordinarily nice fellow, but he is not going to make it with 'The Tonight Show.'"

[Related: The No. 1 Target of Jay Leno's 'Tonight Show' Jokes? Bill Clinton]

Leno did have a legitimate claim to the gig: He had served as Carson's permanent guest host since 1987, and had hosted more than 300 "Tonight Show" episodes by the time he took the reins. But he still had doubters nitpicking his technique.

His interviewing skills weren't up to snuff, some said. The Los Angeles Times wrote that "Leno's interviewing technique too often lacks the authority, sophistication, and sting that he brings to his comedy." They noted of a 1991 guest-hosting gig, "His interviews with director Spike Lee and actor Jack Palance were awkward and uncomfortable as he pushed too hard, his most negative tendency." Woody Harrelson, starring on "Cheers" at the time, even called Leno "amateurish" to TV Guide. (The same magazine that pointedly asked of Leno, "Is He Up to It?")

Others accused Leno of softening his comedy to fit in better with the "Tonight Show" aesthetic — maybe too much. "There has been grumbling that Leno has blunted the cutting edge of his topical humor so as not to alienate Carson's older viewers," the Orlando Sentinel noted. And Entertainment Weekly charged that "the once bitingly sarcastic Leno has transformed himself into a toothless, ultra-bland Mr. Nice Guy."

And we haven't mentioned the competition yet. First, there was Dave Letterman, who had followed Carson for a decade on NBC's "Late Night" and was incensed he didn't get the "Tonight Show" job. Rumors swirled for months that he'd jump networks to compete directly with Leno (he eventually signed with CBS and launched his "Late Show" in 1993), and many thought he deserved the gig in the first place.

Former NBC president Grant Tinker said at the time, "I would have given Dave Letterman the shot." Even Johnny himself was said to prefer Letterman to Leno, giving Jay this tepid vote of confidence: "They didn't ask me one way or another. NBC never discussed it with me. But he's a bright young comic and I wish him every success." Carson never mentioned Leno in his final "Tonight Show," and remained close with Letterman until his 2005 death, even submitting jokes for Dave to use in his monologue.

[Photos: 20 Classic 'Late Show' Moments We're Glad We Stayed Up For]

But beyond Letterman, Leno also faced fierce opposition from Arsenio Hall, whose syndicated late-night show was attracting younger viewers in droves at the time. Arsenio declared war on Jay, famously telling Entertainment Weekly in April 1992 that he'd "kick Jay's ass." Rival networks sharpened their knives in anticipation of a ratings dip and offered competing talk shows from Dennis Miller, Rick Dees, and Chevy Chase. The New York Times relegated Leno to being just "one of many usurpers scrambling to compete for smaller slices of the late-night pie."

Even Carson loyalists didn't exactly throw their arms around Leno. The transition was reportedly strained, with Leno's camp cleaning house and getting rid of every semblance of Carson's reign, leading a Carson insider to snipe, "Leno doesn't have the intelligence or the education or the manners Johnny has."

Carson pal Bob Hope told the Los Angeles Times, "I think Jay Leno is captain of the Titanic." Johnny's loyal sidekick Ed McMahon appeared as a guest on "Arsenio" a few months into Jay's tenure — a serious slap in the face. Even Tiny Tim, who famously got married on Carson's "Tonight Show" in 1969, didn't think too highly of Leno: "I wish him the best of luck. I hope I have a crate of eggs in my face, but I don't think he has the viewing charisma."

Watch Leno talk about the "Tonight Show" transition in this "60 Minutes" clip:

And the questions didn't end once Leno took over "The Tonight Show," either. After Carson signed off in style (with more than 50 million viewers tuning into his farewell show), Leno got off to a rocky start with his May 25, 1992 debut. The New York Times wrote that "a nervous Mr. Leno fumbled the occasion." Newsday said he "was so eager that he stepped on half the laughs after his monologue jokes" and by the end, "the new host looked basically relieved that the whole thing was over."

The Washington Post called Leno's first night "a sobering letdown." The Boston Globe deemed it "underwhelming" and added snidely, "Anybody want to bet on a 30th anniversary for Jay Leno? No takers?"

In fact, there was nary an observer who gave Leno a chance to match Carson's lengthy reign. The Chicago Tribune predicted "a short — let's say eight-year — and sweet run." Leno seemed to feel the weight of those comments when he soaked in the applause of his opening-night audience and joked, "Let's see how you all feel in 30 years."

[Related: Jay Leno on Handing 'The Tonight Show' to Jimmy Fallon: 'No Problem']

He didn't quite get there, but 22 years later, Leno leaves on top, beating Letterman and the rest of his competitors for the bulk of his "Tonight Show" tenure. Maybe he's not Johnny (who could match Johnny?), but he's undeniably a worthy successor to the late-night throne.

And if you go back even further in the way-back machine, you'll see that not even the great Johnny Carson was immune to skeptics when he took over "The Tonight Show." Carson's predecessor Steve Allen told CNN in 1992, "His opening reviews were very unkind, and again, they were saying, 'This man is no Jack Paar, this man is no Steve Allen.'" As Carson himself put it in 1967, "Whenever the day comes that I think it's time to go… they'll be saying, 'Who could follow Carson?' just like they said, 'Who could follow Paar?' Well, believe me, somebody can — and will."

Jay Leno's final "Tonight Show" airs Thursday at 11:35 p.m. on NBC. "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" premieres Feb. 17 on NBC.