''The Tonight Show'' unites guests who had past anti-war differences for the common purpose of healing, says Ken Tucker
Jay Leno, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno
Credit: Jay Leno: Kevin Foley/NBC

Leno and Conan return with dignified shows

NBC’s Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien returned to their late-night talk-show posts last night, both speaking of a sense of duty to their audiences. Leno’s subdued, sincere manner lent ”The Tonight Show” an air of calm dignity. Sensibly acknowledging that a show that originates in Burbank cannot fully embody the mood that pervades the primary attack site of Manhattan, Leno nonetheless reached out to his broad-based audience with the articulate humility that has always been one of his best qualities. Leno said about returning to work simply that, ”Maybe a silly joke can help.”

Leno’s guests were an interesting contrast. Sen. John McCain came out to discuss the geopolitical issues prominent right now, pausing to make a plea for tolerance and emphasizing that ”people of the Muslim faith are good and decent people.” Leno’s guest music act was Crosby, Stills and Nash, who performed three songs including a verse of ”My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” When the trio came over to the Tonight Show couch and positioned themselves between Leno and McCain, it was a study in contrasts, with Crosby noting the political divisions of the ’60s that once might have made CSN and the Vietnam War-veteran Senator ideological opposites, even as all agreed that they now were united in a common cause.

Conan O’Brien, from his ”Late Night” studio in Manhattan, was forthright: ”I will not lie to you,” he said to us. ”I have never felt more unsure” about how to proceed. But he did, and in his best moment, recognized the importance of the young demographic he attracts by addressing them directly: ”There’s a lot of cynicism among young people, and I would ask you not to be cynical.” He urged these people to ”be better in this situation, and try and grow.” You couldn’t ask for a more heartfelt attempt by a performer to reach out to his public in a thoughtful way. His guests were ”60 Minutes”’ Steve Kroft for news analysis, writer and radio commentator Sarah Vowell for anecdotes and gentle humor, and violinist Joshua Bell. But last night, as was true of Leno, it was the host himself who did his show most proud.

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