Tomorrow, Jay Leno makes his most significant television appearance since leaving “The Tonight Show”: as the last guest mentor of this season’s “Last Comic Standing.” Per the Hollywood Reporter, he will answer questions about comedy and guide the remaining five contestants by “sharing personal stories and anecdotes about his experience as a comedian while also giving career advice.”
At the time of his departure, national media outlets wondered what Leno, a self-admitted workaholic who’s been in the business for five decades, would do next. A tongue-in-cheek Entertainment Weekly article suggested that he become a CNN or Fox News anchor, while NBC reportedly hoped he’d stay in the family.
Leno, now 64, suggested that he'd be leading a more low-key life in January in an interview with “60 Minutes’” Steve Kroft (albeit begrudgingly) when he promised he wasn’t going to shoulder his way back to late night. Leaving late night television was “not my decision,” he made clear. But “this makes perfect sense to me. I understand,” he said, acknowledging that, unlike Fallon, he’s not “up on the latest Justin Bieber record” and he certainly isn’t about to dance hip-hop with Justin Timberlake.
He has mostly avoided the spotlight for the past several months, aside from an appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in February. He’s not doing much different from what he’s always done: continuing his Web-based series for car aficionados, “Jay Leno’s Garage,” and performing stand-up around the country. Now, he can add "mentor" to his list, which may be his smartest post-retirement TV appearance yet: nothing too shticky, just Leno earnestly sharing hard-earned insights and doling out advice.
Leno clearly has plenty of haters: He is an alleged joke-stealer, has been dubbed “the Nickelback of comedy,” and his scuffle with Conan O’Brien in 2010 left a lingering sour taste. At this point, he's already become an idea of himself -- a toothless relic of a bygone late-night age who managed to reel in high ratings even as his cultural influence seemed to peter out. So now, without his “Tonight Show” perch, Leno is at a crossroads: He could become a B-list celebrity sitcom cameo, or quietly work to cement his legacy without making a punch line of himself. And so far, he seems to be doing a pretty good job.