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RIP Gene Wilder

One of cinema’s favorite sons, Gene Wilder, died yesterday at the age of 83.

To list a few of Mr. Wilder’s most popular film credits:

  • The Producers (1967)
  • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)
  • Blazing Saddles (1974)
  • Stir Crazy (1980)

To illustrate the impact of an actor, whose acting portrayals far precede my birth, is a challenging task. How did Gene Wilder forever bring joy and fuel an imaginative engine inside the hearts and minds of children (now adults), especially those of us who did not even experience his cinematic works of comedy until a decade or more after the initial release?

The only explanation I can muster is revealed in bright colors, accompanied by a beautiful song in a scene from the 1971 masterpiece Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. This film not only defined a decade, but flipped the switch on who an adult could be in the eyes of a kid: a childlike dreamer.

If that nostalgic trip down Wonka’s way doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, get your tissues ready.

“There were times we would go out to dinner as a family and children would light up at the sight of him and smile. And because he never lost his instinct or sense or sensibility, it occurred to him that if that disease were made public … that then after that smile, some parent may then say something about disease or sadness. And he was such that he could not bear to be responsible for one less smile in the world.”
–Gene Wilder’s nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman on his uncle’s choice not to reveal he had Alzheimer’s disease.

I’ve said on a few occasions that when I finally have a house with a family, on Halloween, I will dress up like Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and decorate my house like the Wonka factory, ready to hand out world-altering chocolate and candy.

That was Gene Wilder’s everlasting gift: Pure imagination.

RIP Gene Wilder.

Jay Leno Was #1 in More Than Just Ratings

Somewhere between 44,000 and 60,000 jokes were told with great, widespread applause (millions of people each night) throughout the course of 22 years as Jay Leno not only took on the nearly impossible task of replacing Johnny Carson, but he entered and left the coveted Tonight Show stage #1 in the ratings. That is not an impressive feat…that is a damn impressive feat! It’s borderline surreal when his daily presence, changing dynamics of television and comedy, plus the vastly increased competition are considered from when he began in 1992 and signed-off in 2014.

In replacing an icon he became one.

Jay’s final monologue included some flashbacks to his favorite and most memorable comedic targets, like NBC, O.J. Simpson and, yes, a very clever Hugh Grant jab!

Last night, the show’s staff and longtime friend Billy Crystal had a circus of surprises ready for The Tonight Show host and dear friend Jay. If you saw the show, it was magnificent. A long list of Jay’s good friends offered him their advice as what to do next. This ranged from starring in a new Tyler Perry Madea movie to him finally %*!@$ inviting Matt Damon to his garage to Bill Maher welcoming Jay back to The Tonight Show for a third term. But the best advice may have come from Charlie Sheen who essentially told him to spend his saved Tonight Show money and buy NBC and then fire everybody!

All of which was done with great fun and laughter.

Jay’s first guest, Billy Crystal, was funny, smart and generous. He started by ordering the Burbank Moving Company around the stage to claim some necessary keepsakes for the road. This led him into his own monologue of sorts about his comedic colleague and friend of 40 some odd years that was sprinkled with Crystal’s own brand of pure class and humor.

This post will not recap the entire show, but there were humorous stories from “back in the day” between Jay and Billy Crystal, a Von Trapp-inspired tribute song, a Garth Brooks who sang for the heart and the party and a final heartfelt and tearful goodbye from the man himself. Jay’s speech at the end of the show was not only really emotional and tearful, but also deeply revealing to the casual viewer. He disclosed the fact that his mom died his first year as The Tonight Show host, his dad died during his second year and his brother died soon thereafter. He was, for lack of a more delicate way to say it, out of family. His writers, producers and everybody on his Tonight Show staff at NBC was his family.

And you’re always loyal and protective of your family.

Despite obvious and warranted friction with his NBC superiors, Jay made it clear that he was invested in more than just a job at NBC. It was something special for him, his staff and everybody who tuned in during the past 22 years.

What does Jay’s exit signify as for the future of The Tonight Show and late night comedy itself? A lot. In fact, it’s a seismic shift. Last night was not just Jay’ final bow to his loyal and always entertained audience, but also a generational goodbye, which is why his departure off the 11:35 p.m. time slot is proving to be such a difficult farewell. Jay is an old school stand-up comedian. There’s no political agenda or mean spirited attacks. He’s just funny. All he needs is a stage. And it’s truly sad he won’t have that anymore to make America laugh at the same time every weeknight after a long, stressful day.

His sense of humor and jokes are timeless.

We’ll especially miss Monday’s unbelievably printed Headlines, the hilariously unpredictable Jaywalking, those savvy gifts from The 99¢ Store and the surprising visits to Oakwood Apartments.

Throughout the post, I’ve almost exclusively written Jay and not his full name Jay Leno. There’s a reason. For most celebrities or personalities, we know them by their full name. But for the rare few where only a first name is the natural reaction to call someone, it usually means that we consider them as an extended member of our family. Whether it’s through music or a talk show, some entertainment personalities feel like that funny or inspiring uncle, aunt, brother or sister to us.

Jay was not just the #1 rated late night host…Jay was America’s stand-up comedian for more than two decades. As Jay alluded to last night, it felt a little like a high school graduation, except that everybody was held back for 22 years! But he’s right. We’ll still see him, whether it’s on the road, online in his iconic garage working on some steam-powered relic or on a television special, but it won’t ever be the same.

It’s the end of an era in too many sad ways to contemplate right now.

Jay ended his tenure as host of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno with a shout-out to his wife Mavis, “I’m coming home honey.”

Jay, for 22 years, thanks for coming into our homes and making us laugh.