When Jay Leno hosted his final Tonight Show last night, he delivered his patented brand of safe humor, with “zingers” such as “When I started hosting, marijuana was illegal and you could smoke cigarettes anywhere you wanted.” (Ha!)
In other words, he enforced why it’s time for him to leave.
Sure, Leno is kind of a tool (nobody puts Conan in a corner!). But it's only fair to note that in the 22 years since he started hosting the show, the American appetite for comedy has changed, making him increasingly look like the weird old uncle at the party, asking guests to pull his finger for a laugh.
Consider that the top shows in 1992, when Leno took the reigns, were Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Cheers, Home Improvement and Coach. All followed the conventions of the classic sitcom—laugh track, live audience, punchline-driven jokes—while dealing primarily with mainstream-America stuff like domestic and office life.
Conversely, the most-popular comedies of recent years include The Office, which featured an awkward, un-PC protagonist and mock-doc format; 30 Rock, which turned cartoonish irreverence into an art form; and Modern Family, which draws laughs from culture tensions and gay fatherhood. Comedy, responding to a more diverse, progressive culture, has become bold, challenging and brilliantly weird, none of which can be used to describe Leno’s guffaw-based brand of humor.