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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Jerry Seinfeld, self-described Leno mentee
A lot of guys like me that wanted to be stand-up comedians in the ’70s would see Jay at the Improv, and he was just this full step ahead of everyone else: his stage presence, his material, his energy. He’d be on his motorcycle, and he’d bring his leather jacket and helmet up onstage and just plop it on the piano and grab that mic and just rock that room so hard. It was just cool. And we used to always meet at his house at the end of the night. No matter where you were, if you were in town, we’d all just show up at Jay’s house. That was sort of a standing appointment. He was my mentor all those years.
Now? I don’t think people realize how sensitive he is. Like if a viewer is offended by a joke and they call The Tonight Show, he’ll actually call them back. He’s done this dozens of times, which I tell him I think is insane.
Billy Crystal, Leno’s first and final Tonight Show guest
Jay is the first person to call you when he hears something, good or bad. When I lost my mom, he’s the first guy on the phone. It’s not like we hang out; there’s no time for that in his life, but I feel very close to him in that way because if there’s a hit movie, “Hey, it’s Jay! Congratulations. It’s great”; and if something doesn’t go well, “Hey, how you doing? You OK? Just checking in.”
The other thing about Jay is that he never says, “How come you don’t do the show a lot?” or “When are you coming back?” He never puts that pressure on you. And he knows that I also do Letterman a lot and he knows that I like doing Dave’s show, and he never says anything like, “What are you doing that show for?” Never ever.
Ellen DeGeneres, fellow talk show host
When I first started out in stand-up, I was performing at the Improv. Jim McCauley, who booked the Tonight Show at the time, was there — and Jay made sure he stayed and watched me. He booked me on Johnny Carson that night, and that was my first big break. I had a mullet, and Jay’s hair was all black, so you know it was a long time ago. Not a lot of stand-ups would do that. And I eventually paid him back — you know his “Jaywalking” bit? My idea. Don’t ask him about it. Just trust me.
He’s a good guy and such a hard worker. We used to shoot our shows on the same lot. His car was always there before me and it was still there when I left. Now that I think about it, it was a 1920’s Model T, so it’s possible it was just broken down.
Larry Miller, fellow comic
Any spot you did on television, any play you were in, he’d always come, and he’d be so supportive. He’d call and leave messages pretending to be some great theater critic or some famous actor, too. It was his voice, just exaggerated. “Hello, Larry, this is Laurence Olivier.” This was after [Olivier] had passed on, by the way, but he’d say, “I’m currently in the play Hark I Am the King.” He always made up the funniest play titles. Then he’d say, “I heard you’re in a play here and you’re playing a king, too.” He’d just make things up. He must have done that 50 times. And he used to do it with Jerry [Seinfeld], too. It was very funny.
Debbie Vickers, Leno’s executive producer for 22 years
I think the thing that is most surprising about Jay is his temperament. In 22 years, we’ve probably seen Jay mad three times. He doesn’t anger. When he’s attacked unfairly, we all get very protective, but Jay will not engage. No matter what.
Jack Coen, longtime Tonight Show writer-producer
Jay doesn’t need a lot of sleep, but I do. He’d fly to some ridiculous place for a gig and then fly back that night, and in Kansas he’d call me: “I should be home in a little bit, and we’ll go over the monologue. I’m going to do a first cut.” That would be at like 12 a.m. And I can’t nap, so I’d be sitting up and he’d call at 2:30 a.m. piss-full of energy, reading jokes one after another. Ironically, we’ve got a week or two left, and he’s finally calling me at a decent time. –between 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. He’ll never admit it, but he’s actually starting to sleep a little now.
Additional reporting by Bryn Elise Sandberg.
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