Jay Leno has left The Tonight Show, but Jay Leno is not finished being Jay Leno. The host may have waved his second final goodbye to the NBC late-night institution this week. But we all know he’s not finished. When Johnny Carson left The Tonight Show, he effectively left pop culture. It’s impossible to imagine an inveterate workaholic like Leno hasn’t already considered several post-Tonight options. But what’s his best bet? Let’s run down the most likely and most awesome possibilities — and then take a vote, because this is America.
Go to CNN. The most popular theory holds that Leno will join his former NBC boss Jeff Zucker at the ratings-challenged news network, hosting some kind of show in primetime or late-night. Given that CNN is still nominally a serious-news network, such a move would probably reboot Leno less as a comedian and more as a Larry King-esque interviewer. A possible happy side effect of the CNN option: Leno could take over Piers Morgan’s 9 p.m. slot. Because whatever you think about Leno, we can all agree that he’s more likable than Piers Morgan. (Which, admittedly, could be said about everyone.)
Go to Fox. Cable, shmable! Leno was delivering better-than-solid broadcast numbers. NBC won’t bring him back to late night (for at least a few months), CBS is the dominion of eternal nemesis David Letterman, and ABC’s current face of late night is also Leno’s most lacerating critic. But Fox has never managed to get any traction out of its late-night experiments. (RIP Wanda Sykes Show and Chevy Chase Show and Talkshow with Spike Feresten, which were all things that happened.) Something is better than nothing, and we can all agree that Leno is something.
Host the American version of Top Gear. But why should Leno just do another late-night show? Leno’s hobby and defining character trait is his love of cars. Wouldn’t it be great if his new job let him explore that hobby in-depth? The American version of Top Gear has never achieved anything like the buzzy British original, but it’s still airing on History. Why not reboot it as Jay Leno’s Top Gear, and let the host travel around the world in various cool automobiles? Watch Leno’s appearance on the British original and see just how engaged he is when he talks cars.
Take a starring role in the next Fast & Furious movie. Everyone else is joining this franchise. Seriously, everyone else. He could play the comic relief to the comic relief! Like, maybe he’s a mentor figure for Ludacris, and during the car-chase scenes, the camera keeps cutting back to The Room With the Computers where Ludacris and Jay Leno are having one of their trademark Odd Couple arguments.
Play himself in an HBO adaptation of The War for Late Night. Or like a version of himself. Leno was an endearingly no-nonsense version of himself on Louie last year, and essaying the part of “Jay Leno” during the 2010 Late Night Explosion could very well net him an Emmy. (Ideally, Gary Oldman would play Letterman, Justin Timberlake would play Jimmy Fallon, and Tilda Swinton would play Conan O’Brien.)
Take a recurring role in Parks & Recreation as Perd Hapley’s successor. Or take any small role in a beloved low-rated sitcom. Having spent 22 years as the populist favorite, Leno could finally win over the chattering classes by playing a character on a cult-favorite series.
Walk the earth like Caine in Kung Fu. But like, for a reality show.
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