A sense of loss as NBC's 'Tonight Show' ends its Leno and Burbank eras

Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

The sign advertising his show still looms over the NBC parking lot, and for a few more days throngs of fans will crowd the studio gates in Burbank before tapings. But Jay Leno says he's ready to leave — and this time, he says he really means it.

After more than 40 years, "The Tonight Show" is leaving Southern California and heading back to New York, with the 63-year-old Leno, who first became host in 1992, handing off the show to Jimmy Fallon, just 39.

Four years have passed since NBC botched a similar passing of the torch to Conan O'Brien. This time it's the passing of an era, and not just for Leno, one of the most polarizing figures in show business. It's also a sobering inflection point for the TV industry and Los Angeles generally, both of which are struggling to adapt to economic and technological forces that are threatening a cultural primacy that looked assured back in 1972, when Johnny Carson transplanted "Tonight" to what he jokingly called "beautiful downtown Burbank."

PHOTOS: A day on set with Jay Leno

"I'm old enough to remember when I was in New York and I was a kid, it was, 'Oh my God, the "Tonight Show's" leaving New York and going to Los Angeles,'" Leno recalled, sitting in the green room next to his studio. "It seemed like the most glamorous thing in the world."

Things change. New York — a safer, more prosperous city than it was in the 1970s — has solidified its standing as the nation's media capital, with most of the major news and talk shows originating there.

"New York is the bustling city and blah, blah, blah," Leno said. "All the excitement's there, all the movie studios, they start their big campaigns in New York. So now it's going back."

Where once "Tonight" was part of a vibrant complex that was home to "Hollywood Squares," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" and other shows, the studios will after this week become another symbol of the runaway production that has seen more than $3 billion in film and TV crew wages slip away from Southern California over the last decade. The "Tonight Show" move will cost more than 150 local jobs alone.

Leno understands that the loss of "Tonight" is a shock to the local system. "That's kind of sad to see happen," he said.

PHOTOS: Classic 'Tonight Show' moments

The sense of loss is palpable. " 'The Tonight Show' put Burbank on the map," said Burbank Mayor Emily Gabel-Luddy. "We stole the 'Tonight Show' from New York originally, and I guess they're stealing it back."

"The real impact is the loss of tradition," she said, "and that's what our community is feeling. We see Jay Leno around town, he participates in our car shows, he drives around our streets and he's been part of the community ever since he's been here doing the 'Tonight Show.' People really love that."

But it's more than a New York vs. Hollywood dynamic, many believe. Leno and his brand of gentle, easily digestible comedy is no longer the kind of fare that captivates the mainstream — if "the mainstream" still exists at all.

"Leno proved that comedy could be clean and square, and still be funny," said Marty Kaplan, a media professor at USC. "That kind of non-edgy humor once won a mass audience, but now it's just another niche."

Indeed, viewers these days must pick their way through more than 20 late-night talk shows on broadcast and cable, including O'Brien's TBS show, Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" and E!'s "Chelsea Lately."

PHOTOS: Talk show hosts who didn't make the cut

"Tonight" has commanded just under 4 million nightly viewers this season, compared with 2.9 million for CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" and 2.6 million for ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," according to Nielsen. But "Tonight's" audience has been declining for years amid all the competition, following a now-familiar pattern seen by nearly every TV show. Once a cash cow for NBC, "Tonight" was forced to lay off about 20 staffers in 2012, and Leno took a 10% pay cut.

None of this was foreseeable 22 years ago, when Leno took over "Tonight" from Carson, who is still considered the gold standard of late-night talk show hosts nearly a decade after his death.

The backstage battle over who would succeed the retiring Carson was so fierce that it was chronicled in a bestselling book, "The Late Shift," which revealed how Leno hid in a closet so he could secretly listen to a conference call of executives discussing his future. The episode sealed the comic's image as a striver of considerable talent but perhaps even larger ambition.

Leno's first months as host were a disaster. The comic's then-manager and executive producer, Helen Kushnick, sent Hollywood into an uproar by seeking to blackball celebrities who appeared on other talk shows. David Letterman, Leno's rival for the "Tonight" desk, left NBC to start a competing program on CBS in mid-1993 that was soon beating "Tonight" in the ratings. On-camera, Leno seemed ill-at-ease, off his game.