Jay Leno has called it “the biggest mistake of my entire life,” not mentioning predecessor Johnny Carson on the air the night he inherited “The Tonight Show” 3-1/2 years ago.
While that’s an indication of just how blessed a life Leno has led, the plain fact is that he knows - everyone knows - he should have thanked Carson for his inspiration, his example and the institution Carson left behind at NBC.
Leno almost always talks about his failure to acknowledge Carson whenever he is interviewed, even now, as if mentioning his error of omission enough times will atone for the slight and erase the impression that he might not be quite as gracious, nice and well-mannered as he appears.
Monday, however, offers Leno the perfect chance to try to make amends.
Monday is Carson’s 70th birthday.
What better time for Leno to spend a few moments on the show rhapsodizing about how he grew up watching Carson and “The Tonight Show,” how much it meant for an aspiring comedian to appear on Carson’s show and recall some of the moments that established Carson’s “Tonight” as the institution it was for nearly 30 years?
Granted, it probably won’t make a whit of difference to Carson what Leno does. Carson told the Washington Post two years ago, on the occasion of his being honored by the Kennedy Center, that he doesn’t watch late-night TV. His alliances are clearly with Leno rival David Letterman, the protege on whose CBS show Carson made a pair of cameos last year.
It would, however, mean something to longtime “Tonight” viewers and - judging from his own rhetoric - perhaps even to Leno himself. It would show that he no longer feels threatened by his predecessor’s legacy.
Much has been made about how long it has taken Leno to put his own stamp on “The Tonight Show.” After suffering from comparisons, Leno has gone to great lengths to distance his version from Carson’s.
But if it hadn’t been for Carson - and Jack Paar and Steve Allen as hosts before him - no one would care who sat behind that desk and asked Martin Short what he has been working on lately. Carson was simply the best there was and possibly the best there ever will be. And it never hurts to have a sense of history.
It also never hurts to have a sense of responsibility. Leno always has shared the blame for the opening-night diss of Carson with his since-fired manager, Helen Kushnick, whose ruthless pursuit of Carson’s job for her client left more wreckage than a “Dateline NBC” crash test. Ultimately, however, this was Leno’s mistake and it would behoove both him and his program to put it behind them.
As for Carson, he seems to be enjoying life off-camera with his wife, Alex. His hair’s a little longer. His face is a little rounder. He isn’t giving interviews, but he says he is working on a CD-ROM companion to the set of “Tonight Show” videos he put out last year, and everything is good.
Wishing Carson well on air, even 3-1/2 years late, is the right thing for Leno to do, the classy thing to do and the shrewd thing to do.
How hard can it be to say happy birthday?
How hard can it be to say thanks?