As Jay Leno makes way for Jimmy Fallon, it’s a chance to see chat show hosts be nice … or naughty

As Jay Leno’s successor Jimmy Fallon buffs and polishes his Big Apple pizzazz for The Tonight Show, let’s reflect on the past two decades ― and the arrivals and departures directly influenced by Leno.

Jimmy Fallon, who replaces Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show. Lloyd Bishop / AP / NBC
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Getting a magic ring down the throat of Mount Doom surely must be easier than getting talk-show hosts to play nice – especially when it comes time to play musical chairs at transition time.

Looking back over the Jay Leno era – from his ascension to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show throne on May 25, 1992, through to his weepy goodbye and the news he’d been named “ambassador to Antarctica” by Barack Obama on February 6 – it’s clear that talk-show changeovers come in three basic varieties: the good, the bad and the ugly.

As Leno’s successor Jimmy Fallon buffs and polishes his Big Apple pizzazz in the NBC bullpen, let’s reflect on the past two decades – and the arrivals and departures directly influenced by Leno.

Leno’s victory lap

Television critics from across North America felt the buzz and inhaled the exhaust in January 1993 when a triumphant, black-leathered Leno revved a monster motorcycle right down the aisle past the scribes, with a grin as big as his ratings. Always a people person, he knows when to turn on his Everyman charm; the towering Leno even came out to party and laugh with the critics later that night in Los Angeles. Verdict: good.

Distant Dave

Having been royally smoked like a salmon out of his dream job as Carson’s heir apparent, David Letterman – the former Indianapolis TV weatherman and Late Night host for 10 years – finally faced critics later that year to yap about his forthcoming Late Show, which premiered that August on CBS. Letterman kept his distance, however, sticking to an elevated stage with media on the floor below. He did not mingle. Verdict: bad.

Conan the crooner

At first, all we knew of Conan O’Brien, before he took over Letterman’s old Late Night gig at NBC in 1993, was that this gangly redhead had written for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. So how did the virtually unknown Coco break the ice with TV critics? By sweetly singing a classic Irish lullaby: Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral. Verdict: good.

Team Coco riots

When a waffling NBC and shameless Leno snatched back the Tonight Show podium in 2010, less than a year after Conan had taken the reins, Team Coco fans across America rallied for O’Brien who promptly walked, pocketed US$45 million (Dh165m) for his trouble and fearlessly hit the road to hilariously lick his wounds with The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. Verdict: ugly.

Jimmy jumps

With his hip factor, comic cunning, musical parodies and dazzling sketches, the SNL alumnus Jimmy Fallon is the kind of guy we wish we could hang tough with every weekend. It took him a few months to hit his stride as the new Late Night host in 2009, but he aced it, all to the beat of TV’s funkiest house band, The Roots. Verdict: good.

Leno’s second coming

Yes, he did score as the talk-wars ratings champ of recent years – but after Jay’s return in 2010, it was never quite the same with that ghostly Conan elephant stinking up the room. Verdict: bad.

Coco’s rebirth

Meanwhile, over at Comedy Central, with his stalwart pal and ­primo second banana Andy Richter at his side once again, Conan got back to basics in the fall of 2010 with, uh, Conan, his new show. Now 50, he’s got his mirthful mojo back. ­Verdict: good.

Finally, a perfect storm

With Leno now free to monkey-wrench and do oil changes on his vast car collection, the dominoes can, finally, fall in perfect order: Fallon takes Leno’s job; wit-in-waiting Seth Meyers takes Fallon’s job; and O’Brien and Letterman both get to keep their jobs. Incredibly, it’s been a chummy, collegial transition.

And after 20 years, a true miracle: Letterman has finally buried the hatchet: “If I was Jay Leno and I was retiring, you know what I would do? I’d buy myself a car. So good luck. Job well done.”

O’Brien, however, fired off a stinger as the Olympics debuted on NBC: “It’s a big deal. NBC will finally get to show somebody who is OK with passing the torch.” Verdict: good for all.

• The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon premieres at 9pm on Tuesday; Late Night with Seth Meyers begins on February 26 at 12.30am. Both are broadcast on OSN First Comedy HD