Farewell, Jay. It’s the swan song with too many verses. “My grandparents love him,” is simultaneously the greatest compliment I can pay and the most cutting way of describing his appeal.
But with the passing of the Tonight Show buck comes a change of a different kind. The question we have to ask is: Does the chair still matter? The king is dead; long live the king?
Take my Tonight Show host — for example!
The Tonight Show is an institution. It’s a Big Chair no matter who sits in it. But the chairs that matter irrespective of the people who occupy them are fewer and farther between than they used to be. There’s Saturday Night Live . There’s the Tonight Show. There’s the evening news, I suppose. There’s — to a certain extent — the Large Metropolitan Newspaper. But most are approaching the same parting of the ways that late-night talk shows have reached: to be diminished beyond recognition and broader significance except to the people who grew up with them (only 27 percent of Americans know who Brian Williams is) or serve as launching points for independent brands (Jimmy Kimmel, anyone?). The anonymous voices that used to give flair and color to a Famous Chair are out on their own, echoing through the Twittersphere (or is it the Twitterverse?) and attracting their own followings. The microphone is only important as long as we say it is. When we walk away, our voices will carry just as far. That, at any rate, is the dream — and the terror, if you’re one of the remaining Big Chairs. How do you impress on people that they are only listened to because they are holding the scepter you gave them? What if they set out to prove you wrong? How much does the chair still matter?
Then again, which listeners matter? Now all the old chairs have to fight for a share of the listening audience that used to be theirs by right. You can’t rely on the name to catch people’s attention — except for the people you’ve already caught.
When I say, “Hey, I write for a newspaper!” anyone in my parents’ demographic responds, “Wow! I think I’ve read you!” and anyone in my demographic responds, “Can I find your stuff online?”
So, which listeners matter?
We live in the future now, where everyone is famous not for 15 minutes but to 15 people. You bounce around through various mediums — TV, radio, print, Twitter — accruing a thin layer of people who take an interest in you, like the fuzz that forms on silly putty when you drop it onto carpet. Everyone, after all, is a brand. We decided this was a good idea. But as a consequence, the chairs are shrinking. No one’s obscure any more, but the launchpads to fame, on whose good will you could coast from obscurity to your own success, are losing their potency. Look what happened to American Idol. Look at “The Voice” and tell me it’s doing anything other than keeping Adam Levine on television so we’ll remember who he is.
With Leno’s departure, the Tonight Show enters the jungle era that many institutions have found themselves in for a while. You can’t rely on your Old Name to make noise. You have to go out and drum up an audience with the rest of them. Switch the occupant of the throne, and it makes a big difference to the boundaries of the kingdom. The chair doesn’t cut it any more.