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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?
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.
There’s been talk about Jeff Zucker expressing interest in you for CNN.
A lot of people are interested …
But you and Zucker have a rich history, including the chapter when he dumped you for Conan. There’s no grudge?
No, because Jeff believed in The Tonight Show. When we did The Tonight Show [during his tenure atop NBC], if there was a big star in New York and we wanted them tomorrow night, Jeff would say, “Authorize the jet. Find $25,000. We want them.” Boom. Those kinds of things don’t necessarily happen anymore.
What happens now?
It’s just different. Jeff comes from a talk show background. He did the Today show, so he understands what’s necessary for a daily show. You do whatever you have to do to get guests, no matter what it costs. You worry about it later. He was always very helpful that way. The fact that other things didn’t work out? OK, I get it.
There was a period last winter when you were taking some digs at NBC’s dismal ratings on air and NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt got upset. Then you two had this dinner where you discussed the transition and we were told you walked away feeling good about everything. What happened at that dinner?
I still feel good about it. What did we talk about? The fact that my staff would be paid through September, so everybody’s taken care of — whatever I got, everybody else should get. That was pretty much what it was. I mean, we talk quite a bit. I like Bob. Sound of Music was a big hit, which made everything a lot easier.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done the 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show?
People have said, “Why didn’t you go somewhere else?” NBC is my home. This is the only network I’ve ever worked at — Local 33, the crew, hair, makeup, they’re the people I’ve always worked with. If I had gone somewhere else, I couldn’t have taken any of my people with me. And they said, “Look, if you do this 10 o’clock show, it will be a smooth transition. We’ll continue to pay everybody, same offices, same everything.” So I said, “All right, let’s give it a try and see what happens.” It didn’t work out. I don’t quite get what all the big deal was; there are failed TV shows every season. The thing that really surprised me was all these threats that I was putting all these 10 o’clock [scripted] shows out of business.
How surprised were you by the backlash when you returned to The Tonight Show?
Not really. I think you have to have the ability to look back and try to figure out what went wrong. When we came back at 11:30 p.m., my 10 p.m. lead-ins were worse than my lead-in to Conan, by far. But you just keep your head down and do the work. I think you can complain about your lead-in among your staff and maybe to executives, but going public with it doesn’t get you anything. If anybody really believes that their show didn’t work because of our lead-in, I think that’s being a bit naive.
Whom do you turn to for advice when you’re going through tough periods like that one? Who is in the inner circle?
There’s not a lot of angst here. I’m not one of those people who gets wildly depressed or overly happy. There’s a phrase I like, and it’s rather crude: “Don’t fall in love with a hooker.” And that’s really what show business is. I have a wonderful wife. We’ve been together for 34 years. I have the same friends I had in high school. I have my guys that work in my garage. And then there are comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Miller and Jimmy Brogan. That’s sort of the group. But when I pick up an article that says, “Jay Leno sucks. He stinks,” I don’t get any more depressed than when I pick up one that says, “Jay Leno is the funniest person.” I don’t really believe either of them.
Your lawyer, Ken Ziffren, handles all of your deals. You’ve never had an agent. Will you consider one when you start to explore what’s next?
If you’re any good, people will find you. I always tell comics if you’re on at the Improv, The Laugh Factory or The Comedy Store every night of the week and you’re any good, they will find you. Believe me, they will find you. You might need an agent to guide you through the waters a bit, but for the most part the work is what sells you.
When you leave this time, where do you think your viewers will go?
I don’t know. I think most of them will probably stay with The Tonight Show. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t.
Well, it’s a very different show, as you said.
Yeah, but it was a different show when I took over from Johnny. It’s funny to be on the other side now. It’s rather amusing.
So, there’s no resentment?
You can’t be [resentful]. What does anger get you? What does negativity get you? It doesn’t get you anything. Now you’re like the creepy old guy.
You’ve not spent any of your Tonight Show money over the years. You don’t have kids. What are you saving for?
I get a lot of grief about that. When I was a kid, I always had two jobs and I’d bank one job and live on the money from the other job. When I was working at a car dealership, I’d spend my comedy money because it wasn’t much and I’d bank the car money. Then when the comedy money got bigger than the car money, I’d bank the comedy money. Then I came into TV, and the TV money is bigger than the personal appearance money, so let me bank that. I just have one credit card, I didn’t have a mortgage. I’m really simple that way. It’s just easier. We have some scholarship things and my wife does a lot for women’s rights. We do a lot of benefits, and there are some other things.
Will do you more philanthropic work?
I enjoy doing all of that, but it’s hard to talk about those kinds of things. It’s funny, Americans like everyone to know the good work they’re doing anonymously. “I don’t want to talk about this, but you know we’ve donated …” Oh shut up, Whiny Rich People!
When do you plan to make a decision about the next phase of your career?
Not for awhile. I’ll tell you something: I was in Atlantic City on a Saturday night [not too long ago] and I went down to the local comedy club and went out to eat with a bunch of new comics. We just sat and talked about comedy. I thought, “This is fun.” This is what you used to do when you were starting out. I hardly know any of the new comics anymore because I’m not in the clubs. So it’ll be fun to go back to the clubs and hang out a little bit.
Have you considered doing a residency in Las Vegas?
Oh, I don’t want “The Jay Leno Room” in Vegas. That’s annoying. Anything with your name on it is annoying. I didn’t like the idea of The Jay Leno Show at 10 p.m. I remember saying to them back in the 1980s, “Anything with your name on it is annoying and it’s not going to work.” I’ve been proven right, obviously.
Do you think you’ll watch the other late-night shows when you finish here?
Of course. I watch the other shows now.
You have to watch every monologue two weeks behind you because we live in an age where nobody ever does a joke that’s similar. It’s always “Stolen!” If Chris Christie is fat and you do a joke about it, it’s: “Well, two weeks ago he did a joke about that. Leno stole it!” So everyday when we’re doing the monologue, I say, “Well, that was too close to what Dave said,” or “That’s too close to what Ferguson said.”
Looking back, what were the highlights for you?
The ones that stand out are usually the ones that have some basis in reality. When I was in the fifth grade, I had to write a paper about John Glenn circling the Earth. And then in 1998 when John Glenn went up at the age of 78 to circle the Earth again, I had him on the show. I called my fifth grade teacher, who had given me a C, and I said to him, “I want an upgrade. I did a follow-up.” It was fascinating to me to have genuine American heroes on the show. Having the first sitting president on the late-night show was really exciting. There are a lot of moments that really were exciting. OK, there were a few reality stars that weren’t that exciting. But for the most part, it’s overwhelming and I still have that sense of wonderment about it.
How have you maintained that wonderment over time?
I don’t really go to Hollywood functions and what not because I like being an outsider. I like feeling like a regular person talking to this big-time celebrity. People go, “You have a TV show, you’re famous,” but when you don’t go to Hollywood hangouts and do all of that stuff you feel like the guy from Des Moines who just got into town. I think that was one of the secrets to why this show worked. People felt like, “I’m more like Jay than I am like the star. I’ll watch the star through Jay.” That was Johnny’s great gift. I remember once when Dean Martin came out in the 1960s, and he had a pair of Italian loafers on, handmade, and Johnny went, “Wow, look at those shoes! How much do those shoes cost?” Dean said, “$300,” which would be like $2,000 now. And Johnny went, “$300? Woooah,” like every guy in America. Johnny could afford 1 million pairs of those shoes, but that wasn’t the point. He was relatable. It’s like you drive a Corvette, you get the thumbs-up; you drive a Ferrari, they give you the finger. It’s because the average guy can aspire to own a Corvette, he’s never going to have a Ferrari. That’s really the difference.
That’s an interesting analogy from a guy who has hundreds of cars … Yeah, but a bunch of them are Corvettes.
I don’t have any Ferraris.
Who will be the guest or guests that you’ll see on another show and think to yourself, “I wish I got to be sitting in the chair asking the questions?”
There will be new candidates for president or whatever it might be, and you’d say, “That would be fun to do.” The politicians are always my favorite.
Because it’s real. They’re not playing a role. When I interview Superman or Batman, I’m not actually talking to Superman or Batman. I’m talking to a guy playing Superman or Batman. When you talk to Bill Clinton or Bob Dole or Barack Obama, you’re talking to a possible president of the U.S. or [current] president of the U.S.
What do you hope people will remember about your tenure at The Tonight Show?
People can debate whether something was funny or not funny — it’s pretty subjective — but what you can’t change are the numbers. My job was to have the No. 1 show. I was given the No. 1 talk show and for the last 20 years, we’ve been the No. 1 talk show all the way through. That’s what you look at.
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