Jay Leno In-Depth: Post-'Tonight' Plans, Kimmel's Insults, Zucker, What He Taught Letterman (Q&A)

In an extensive interview with THR, the host opens up about potential job offers and explains why doing another nightly talk show "wouldn't make a lot of sense."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's approaching 5:30 p.m. on a mid-January evening as Jay Leno collapses into a seat in his Tonight Show greenroom. He's just wrapped another show, his 4,599th since inheriting it in 1992 from Johnny Carson, and his exhaustion is palpable. What isn't are the kind of emotions -- sentimental, apprehensive -- one would expect from a guy two weeks away from wrapping a two-decade-plus run as host of the No. 1 late-night show.

But Leno, 63, insists he's made peace with NBC's decision to turn the storied franchise over to Late Night's Jimmy Fallon, 39, in a way he hadn't when the network did the same with Conan O'Brien in 2009. "Unlike the last time, this time he's just kind of moving on," says his longtime Tonight Show writer-producer Jack Coen, who, like many, acknowledges that he didn't think Leno would be able to do so. After all, Leno not only is one of the most fiercely competitive comics on television but also, arguably, the hardest working.

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In addition to a nightly show, for which the married comedian famously avoids vacations and sick days, he crisscrosses the country doing about 150 stand-up gigs a year. But the past half-decade has been trying, beginning with his failed 10 p.m. NBC talk show, followed by a return to Tonight that exiled O'Brien. In the four years since, he has had to lay off about 20 employees, cut his reported $30 million salary substantially to save other staffers and, in March 2013, was told again that he'd need to pass the torch to a younger comedian -- all the while maintaining his show's status as No. 1 in viewers (3.8 million average). (Advertising revenue, now about $125 million, is down nearly 40 percent from five years earlier, according to Kantar Media.)

Leno has yet to actively field offers from many of the entities said to be interested in his next act -- including CNN's Jeff Zucker, producer Jeff Gaspin, CORE Media's Marc Graboff and the team from History Channel -- but those close to him suggest another daily talk show is unlikely. In the near term, he hints at more stand-up and the possibility of expanding the car-focused Jay Leno's Garage -- currently a website -- into television.

In an extensive interview with THR, he opened up about all of the digs his fellow comedians have taken at him -- including the "F--- Jay" from Jimmy Kimmel -- the advice he's given to his successor and why doing another nightly talk show a la Tonight "wouldn't make a lot of sense."

So what happens Feb. 7? You'll wake up that morning and …?

Get on a plane and go to Florida. I was a stand-up comedian first and then I got this job, and I still do at least two or three dates a week. It'll be kind of fun to be on the road as a comedian again. I think I'll like it.

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What are your emotions as the final show approaches?

It's not really sad. It's been a really good run and you have to be realistic. I think it's safe to say if NBC didn't have somebody in the bullpen, I might be here a little bit longer and I get that. But it's like sports: You got a pitcher that's 39 years old and he's still throwing good, and then you've got a 19-year-old guy, you've got to move on. Johnny was 66 when he left. This always felt about the right age. The last time I got canned I said that it didn't really seem natural at 57 to be leaving, but 63, 64 feels about right.

What will you miss most?

I'm a creature of habit. I like coming to work every day. I like the people I work with. I think our writing staff is probably the highest-paid because they've been here the longest. Most of the writers have been here 20 years; producers have been here all 22 years. Everybody's been here since the beginning. People say it's a family, which is a little hokey, but it is. Mr. Fezziwig from the Dickens Christmas Carol was always my role model.

There's this dichotomy between that image and the one pushed by comics like Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. How did that happen?

The mere fact that I don't answer or respond to those probably allows it to. … I don't get into public feuds with other comics.

Don't you ever have the urge to fire back?

But that doesn't serve the purpose. Rich people whining and complaining? Shut up. You make more money than 99 percent of the population and you're complaining and whining. My job is to go out there and be a comedian. That's what I do. "This guy said this! Well I want to tell him …" I don't know what that is. That doesn't do anything. And in the real world, when most people get home -- policemen, doctors -- they turn on The Tonight Show to hears some jokes, not "Well I want to tell you what …"

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So you just take it as Kimmel takes shot after shot?

I don't think it gets you anything [to respond]. You mention Jimmy Kimmel, I've never answered any of his things. I pick up The New York Times and it's, "F--- Jay Leno," "F--- Jay Leno." And I go, "OK, based on what?" But it's fine. I think he's a funny guy. I did his show and I didn't have any problem with him. He comes from radio where you pick a fight with the other guy. I don't do that. It's fine. There's plenty of room for everybody.

How do you feel as you read "F--- Jay Leno"?

Is it a joke? Is it funny? You know, Letterman and I have had a fun relationship because when Letterman says something, it's funny. "F--- Jay?" Is there anyone that reads that and says, "Ah! Clever! He said 'F--- Jay.' " And then he said it again! And then the next day, he said it again! Dave would always have something funny to say [about me], and I would watch Dave and go, "OK, that's pretty good." That's really the difference.

How would you characterize your relationship with Letterman?

Dave and I have an interesting relationship in that when he came to town I think he admired my ability to perform and I admired his ability to weave sentences and phrases. When he would get up at the Comedy Store, he was not a natural stand-up, so he was a little nervous. I think he'd watch me and I would just sort of plow ahead and be loud. He sort of admired that, and I admired his ability to be subtle. So I learned from Dave the subtleties of doing a joke, and I think he learned from me how to really sell a joke. So there was always a mutual admiration, and we always made each other laugh.

When this chapter is over and you're not competing head-to-head, will you spend time with each other again?

Well I don't know if … it's not that comics spend a lot of time together. It's just that you pick it up where you left off the last time. It's an interesting relationship.

Letterman recently sat down with Oprah, and in addition to saying you were the funniest person he'd ever known, he said you were "the most insecure." Fair?

That struck me as funny because I don't quite get that one at all. No, I don't think I'm insecure at all. That actually made me raise an eyebrow. Where did Dave get that?

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You've talked about how uncomfortable your mother was with attention. How comfortable are you?

My mother came from Scotland and she was always like, "The worst thing you can do is call attention to yourself." So I would always try to be on the outside looking in, just keeping it right below a rolling boil.

She's the reason the show was renamed The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, not "starring" as it will be once again be with Fallon, correct?

Yeah. It was going to be "starring," but then my mother started, "Starring Mr. Big Shot! Mr. Who's Who!" I go, "All right, mom. I'll make it 'with Jay Leno.' " So that's what we did. But it's not uncomfortable [for me]. There's a little, 'OK, thank you. That's enough.'

If the latest NBC plan with Fallon and Meyers does not work out, would you come back?


You wouldn't?

No, because last time I was told, "You're leaving"; this time, honestly, I was asked. When I signed [my last contract], I said, "This about the last go-round? OK." I was going to leave in September and then they said, "We have the Olympics and we'd like to launch Jimmy early. What if you left six months early? Would you do that?" And we said, "Does the staff get paid? OK, fine." We could have stayed until the end of the contract, but we said, "OK, we'll go six months early and give Jimmy a good launching pad and all that kind of stuff." And I genuinely like Jimmy and I think that he's the guy most like Johnny was when he started, silly and very musical. A lot of people don't know that Johnny played drums and did all kinds of things, too. When I watched Jimmy do a number with Justin Timberlake, I thought, 'Well, I can't do that.' There's clearly a huge generation gap between me and Jimmy. I mean, it's 23 years. I guess that's two generations almost. It makes sense.

At the same time, you're still the No. 1 show on TV, which has some questioning the logic …

But that becomes diminishing returns. The numbers that keep you No. 1 today would have got you canceled 15 or 20 years ago. It's all relative, but I get it. And you should leave while you're No. 1. You don't want to drift down and then eventually the place is boarded up one day. The Tonight Show has always moved on when it was strongest.

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What advice have you given Fallon?

We've talked on the phone. He's very good at what he does. The only thing I'd say is that the strength of The Tonight Show has always been the monologue. The late-night shows that have failed are the ones where the monologue was weak -- two minutes, three minutes. We do 14 minutes every night, which is almost a sitcom. It's a lot of jokes, but for a lot of people it's how they get their news. There are really only 18 celebrities in the world that mean anything rating-wise, if it's even that many.

Who's on that list?

The people you'd think. Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, those sorts of people. And then after that, not a whole lot. So they have to have a reason to come to the show. You also have to remember you're reaching a broad market. And it's not about my politics. A lot of performers want people to know their politics. I remember a young comedian on the show, his opening line was, "I'm a Democrat." Well, he lost half the crowd. Your job is to be funny first and maybe your message is third or fourth down the line. You're a comedian. But this is what happens: They start out as comedians, then they become satirists, then they become humorists, then they're out of the business.

So there really is no plan with regard to what's next?

No. Do I have all kinds of offers? Sure.

Is TV as a platform still appealing to you?

I don't know if you can make lightning strike twice. If you come back and you're not No. 1, it's "Jay stinks!" "Jay sucks!" This worked really good and for 22 years it was the No. 1 show and it was great. We have a great team here. I'm not sure it can be re-created again.

You're a fiercely competitive guy, would you be OK coming back and not being No. 1?

Sure. But it's not that you're No. 1, it's that you've got to be successful for the people you work for. Not that long ago, I was in Vegas and they said, "Tickets sales are down." I said, "Cut the ticket prices in half and pay me half." They did, and it sold out. I can't spend this money anyway, so why not? And now they're happy, they're making money. It's very simple. When these shows become too expensive to produce, you move on and do the next thing.

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A lot of people have approached you about what's next. What's the wildest offer?

Most of them are very similar to what I do, and to do the "Tonight Show Lite" wouldn't make a lot of sense. I do have this Jay Leno's Garage channel and that's been really successful. I really enjoy that and it's different from what I do here so consequently I'm not competing against the shadow of my former self.

You mention Tonight Show Lite, and some would argue that's what Conan has done with his TBS show. Fair?

I don't want to comment on anybody else. Then it looks like I'm commenting on what he's chosen to do. It's hard because I don't … I sort of let myself be the punching bag. It's fine. You do what you got to do.

Have you spoken to him since he left NBC?


Have you thought about calling him?

Why would I do that? No. God no.

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