The “hardest working man in show business,” as his peers call him, has no plans to take the summer off once he steps away from “The Tonight Show” on May 29. “I kinda work every night,” Jay Leno said on the phone from his NBC office in Burbank, Calif. “This is my job.”
Leno wraps “Tonight” on a Friday and then jets off to Atlantic City to perform the very next night. He has another show Sunday and then heads off to do a casino show north of Toronto the following Tuesday. “I’ve always considered myself a stand-up comedian who was lucky enough to get a TV show,” he said, believing that “TV is one of those deals that could go at any minute — even though it hasn’t.”
The 59-year-old comedian leaves “Tonight” as the second longest-serving host of the NBC franchise, behind only Johnny Carson’s incredible 30-year run. His 17-year, 3800-episode stint is three to four times the tenure of “Tonight” pioneers Steve Allen and Jack Paar. He’s proud of leaving the show the way he found it — solidly No. 1 in the late-night ratings. It’s a position he wrestled back from David Letterman 15 years ago and never surrendered, winning every sweeps period since 1994.
“The ‘Tonight Show’ was sort of like the America’s Cup,” he said. “You don’t want to be the guy who screws it up.” He’s relieved to be handing it off “to the new guy,” Conan O’Brien, who begins his “Tonight” tenure June 1.
Leno knew when he signed his last contract in 2004 that he’d be leaving “Tonight” in 2009. That was the deal he made with NBC. The plan was to keep O’Brien, 46, from leaving the network, and to provide a smooth succession.
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10 p.m. experiment ‘is pretty much gravy’
After years of speculation as to Leno’s future — would he jump to ABC? Fox? — NBC prevailed upon him to front one of the most audacious experiments on the history of television: his own, five-night-a-week, prime time comedy series.
“We’ll give it a chance and see what happens,” Leno said, smartly playing down expectations. “The fun thing is we’ve had a good run on ‘The Tonight Show,’ we’ve had a good time, so we’re going to do our best to make sure the 10 o’clock thing works. But this is pretty much gravy at this point. We’ll keep it loose and just keep throwing jokes out there.”
Leno said he “never assumes for a minute people want to look at me,” adding, “I’m a great believer in low self-esteem; the only people I find that have high self-esteem are criminals and actors.”
Low self-esteem is part of what drives Leno. “You always assume you’re the dumbest person in the room and you’ll work harder,” he said.
For all his laid-back, regular-working-guy charm, Leno is probably the most competitive player in a very competitive business. He loves to win, hates to lose and will work harder than anyone to stay on top.
He hated missing those two “Tonight Show” episodes late last month due to a high fever, which led to a short hospital stay. They were his first sick days in 17 years on the job. “I let them talk me into this stupid, idiot idea of going to the hospital,” he said. “That was a huge mistake.”
He was quick to make light of it the next time he was back to work. “I had a horrible dream that I couldn’t breathe,” he said of his hospital stay. “Then I woke up and realized Conan was holding a pillow over my face!”
Leno figures he gets his competitive drive and tremendous work ethic from his late father Angelo, whose parents immigrated from Italy. It serves him well in his original duel for “The Tonight Show,” when Leno — who at one point hid in a closet to eavesdrop on NBC executives — outmanuvered David Letterman to land the job both men coveted.
It kicked in again over a year ago during the writers' strike, when writer-less Leno was forced to compete every night against Letterman and his full writing staff (brought back early thanks to separate Guild deals with Letterman’s production company).
Most pundits expected Leno to be outmatched, but there he was, night after night, telling his usual 30-40 jokes — and keeping “The Tonight Show” No. 1 in the ratings.
He’ll have his writers and production staff with him as he heads into “The Jay Leno Show.” It is one of the reasons Leno seems remarkably unsentimental about his “Tonight Show” farewell. “It’s like we’re off the air for a couple of months and then we come back,” he said.
Leno personally requested O’Brien to guest on his last “Tonight,” along with singer James Taylor, who, like Leno, “is a Boston guy.” He also said he has “something kind of interesting planned for the very end which I think people might get a kick out of.” There was some speculation that his wife of nearly 30 years, Mavis, might make an appearance but Leno shot that down. “We’re not going to renew our vows on the air or anything like that,” he told critics.
Ironically, it looked at one point as if Leno’s hometown might not see his new show. The head of NBC’s Boston affiliate balked at the 10 o’clock plan. “I had a nice talk with him and we worked it all out and now we’re on there in Boston,” Leno said.
It is that kind of personal touch, an ability to connect with programming executives as well as the humblest fan — that is Leno’s greatest asset going into his 10 p.m. task. His recent “Comedy Stimulus Plan” swings through hard hit recession towns such as Detroit and Wilmington, Ohio, brought him face-to-face with thousands of fans. Working all those live shows, glad handing with press and affiliates, it all gives Leno an edge when it comes to staying on top of his game.
Asked in that conference call if it bugged him that he generally gets overlooked at Emmy time, Leno replied he’d take the bigger audience share any day. “If you’re in show business, and you’re working, just be happy with what you have, OK?” he said. He has no time for whiny celebrities who claim they don’t get enough respect.
“Shut up, shut up if you’re not working at Starbucks,” he said.
Bill Brioux’s “Night Watch: 50 Years of Late Night Television,” is due out this fall from Praeger Press.