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Catalyst interview: Jay Leno on comedy, Conan and the business of show

Bill DeYoung

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Jay Leno, standup comedian, is onstage Feb. 3 at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Publicity photo.

As host of the top-rated Tonight Show from 1992 to 2014 (with a four-month “sabbatical” in the middle), Jay Leno was one of the most popular personalities on television.

That was all part of the game plan. Becoming one of the most controversial people on television was not.

In this extraordinary conversation with the St. Pete Catalyst, Leno – who performs Feb. 3 at Ruth Eckerd Hall – discusses his transformation from edgy, topical standup comedian to genial, coast-to-coast talk show host, and the criticism he took from contemporaries who said he’d “sold out” by “softening” his comedy for the masses.

When NBC hired Leno to replace the retiring Johnny Carson, it cost the new host his longtime friendship with David Letterman, who was among those expecting to take the Tonight Show chair.

Then, of course, came the great Conan debacle. NBC spent five years grooming Conan O’Brien to replace Leno on the Tonight Show in 2009, but when the change came, the ratings were disappointing.

In an unprecedented move, the network brought Leno back for another five years. O’Brien quit in disgust. Leno took the negative press and the criticism – more like personal attacks – with grace and humor.

Today, the 71-year-old hosts Jay Leno’s Garage, focusing on his obsession with classic cars, on CSNBC. And he’s on the road doing standup – which, he reminds us in this interview, he never stopped, even for all those years when he was interviewing celebrities on late-night TV.

As with all Leno’s tour dates, this Clearwater performance was rescheduled from 2020, and from 2021, for obvious reasons.

 

St. Pete Catalyst: The tour that brings you here was canceled twice because of Covid concerns. Overall, what has the pandemic been like for you?

Jay Leno: For me, it hasn’t been too bad. If this happened at the beginning of my career, it would’ve been a nightmare. Now that I’m in the twilight, or whatever you want to call it, it’s not the end of the world. I always said to myself, if I’m ever fortunate enough to make it, I’m not gonna be one of those guys who turns down a gig because it’s not enough money, or it’s too far away or whatever. So consequently when I did start to make it I kept that pledge, and I took every date that was offered, pretty much. Because I didn’t want to be snobby. I didn’t want to be complacent.

When you’re in your late 60s, early 70s and you’re forced to stay home, it’s not the worst thing in the world. I’d never taken five days off, so it was like oh, okay. I didn’t bitch about anything, because I made my money, it’s in the bank. If everything ends tomorrow, I’m OK. It’s gravy at this point.

I mean, there are people so much worse off. It hasn’t been that bad for me.

 

But if a comic is off the road for an extended period, don’t the comedy muscles atrophy? Aren’t you afraid you’ll lose your touch when there’s no audience to talk to?

The bad news is: When you’re out that long, you have a tendency to stay with material too long. When you realize you’re still doing bits about Reagan’s trip to Bitburg … gotta get rid of that one! What happened was, I was off the road for almost a year, and I’d forgotten everything! So I’m sorta starting fresh with new stuff. And I really like it. It’s fun. I’m a “lemonade from lemons” guy, that kind. I’m not a bitch, moan and complain guy. Tell me what the rules are, and we conform to them.

 

Was there always a sense that once the Tonight Show ended, you would go back to doing standup?

First of all, I never stopped doing standup. I was on the road 150 days a year when I was doing the Tonight Show. (chuckling). You know, I never believed television was a real job. Television, it lasts as long as it lasts, and then it comes to a crashing end. It just stops.

I’ve told this a million times, but I’ve never touched a dime from my Tonight Show money. I always lived on the money I made as a standup, ‘cause I always wanted to be hungry. In my mind, if I don’t work this week I have no money coming in. Well, yes I do, but in my mind I don’t because I live on what I make that week.

Look, it’s a ridiculous premise, but it does keep you hungry.

My favorite thing is when I see rich people on talk shows saying ‘This next project, I’m doing for ME.’ That whole idea that you’ve given so much to the public, and it’s time you did something for you! Those always make me laugh. It’s my favorite thing.

 

You were a favorite guest on Letterman in the ‘80s. You were always sarcastic about the rich and famous – did you have to dial that back for the Tonight Show?

Well, you have to dial it back because …  now you’re rich and famous! You can’t pretend you’re sitting in Economy now, ’cause people don’t believe it. You’ve got to adjust to the situation that you’re in.

Those are my favorite years, doing Letterman.

There was a magazine called SUCCESS Magazine, and Letterman was on the cover. Of course, Letterman hates ANY type of adulation like this. So I walked out with the magazine, and I said ‘Dave, I saw you on the cover of SUCCESS Magazine … y’know, I’m on THIS magazine’: And it was twice the size, and it was called SUPER SUCCESS Magazine. My face was bigger than Dave’s. Everything was just bigger.

That was my favorite thing with Letterman. When he was in the Playboy interview, I came out with the Playboy, and he goes ‘yeah, yeah.’ And I go ‘y’know, Dave, I’m on Women Are Our Equals Magazine.’

It was so stupid. But it was so much fun. Those days, that was the first time I was on a TV show with a contemporary. When I would do the Tonight Show, I’d say ‘Mr. Carson.’ He’d go ‘Call me Johnny.’ I couldn’t do that.

Whereas with Letterman, since we were contemporaries, you could be sarcastic and really have fun with it. The best part of being older now is that you can just trash people your own age, or people younger than you, without that age thing.

 

OK, I’m going to tread lightly here … the ‘Late Night Wars,’ Conan, Letterman … how does that all sit with you now? If we can use the word “legacy” in quotes. Some people are still feeling a little tender about it.

Well, ‘legacy’ is hilarious. All that’s left, really, is numbers. Yeah, we kept the show Number One. That was my job.

 

Talking about those days with Letterman, though, the fact that you guys aren’t ever going to be pals any more, that’s a little sad for some of us out here in TV Land.

It’s fine with me, I have no problem with it. I would go on Dave tomorrow and do ‘What’s My Beef?’ and everything. Look, I’m a huge believer in low self-esteem. I think it’s the key to success. If you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room, you shut up and you listen. I mean, I truly believe you’re only as good as your last joke.

And when I go on the Tonight Show now, when I go on Jimmy Fallon, I go on as a standup. I don’t sit down and bitch, ‘You know, in my day …’ You go out and you tell jokes. I go out in the street and I meet young people who only know me from Jay Leno’s Garage. When you’re talking to somebody who’s 22, they were 12 when I was on. They didn’t watch it.

In terms of ‘Late Night Wars’ and all that nonsense, look, I always say ‘Who do you tackle? The guy with the football. And the Tonight Show is the football.’ So people are going to attack you, and beat you up and say nasty things, all right, fine. Please! It’s all part of the job.

 

I guess that’s a healthy way to look at it …

No, no the healthy thing is, I have the same friends I had in high school, I’ve been married to the same person for 42 years. That’s what it is: If you think people in show business are your friends, ask them for a ride to the airport. They’re not gonna give it to you. These are acquaintances. They’re all show business acquaintances.

And that’s fine! I don’t mean that to sound cold. It’s just the reality. I have friends that were on sitcoms, then when the sitcom gets canceled, suddenly they can’t get a reservation at their restaurant or whatever their thing is. And they’re all hurt about it. And I go why? Why did you think you were anything other than a commodity to these people?

If you have five real friends, you’re way ahead of the game.

You don’t fall in love with a hooker, OK? That’s what show business is.

 

You’re playing Ed Sullivan in this upcoming biopic about Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager?

Apparently! I’m going there in about an hour. It’s not an impression of Ed Sullivan. I said to them ‘Why would you pick me to play Ed Sullivan?’ And the answer is: First of all, nobody under the age of 40 has any idea who Ed Sullivan is. You just need someone who’s known as a host. I don’t introduce the Beatles; it all takes place in Ed Sullivan’s office, when Brian Epstein comes in to discuss with him. So I’m not going to do (Ed Sullivan voice) ‘Tonight on our shew …’ It’s not an impression. I would just be torn limb from limb – ‘Leno doesn’t look anything like Ed Sullivan!’ – I’m not Will Jordan.

I don’t have an agent, so I don’t know what this job pays. You want me in your movie, OK, fine. Pay me when it’s over.

Show business is not that difficult. People make it difficult. I used to see that all the time on the Tonight Show. We had one star who was staying at the hotel literally across the street. And they wanted a white limo to pick them up. I said, we can’t find a white limo. And the manager said ‘Well, you find one, or else we’re not …’ I go, really? You’re coming across the street! I mean, I’ll give you every amenity we have, but there’s no white limo in L.A. today.

 

So what happened eventually?

We just sent a regular car, and they came. That’s what it is. Really? Is this worth arguing about?

 

What you seem to be telling me is that you’re still the same guy you always were.

I think I’m basically the same person, but I’m sure there’s some differences. Your initial question was ‘Did you tone it down for the Tonight Show?’ Yes. You know, when you get hired to do a job, you match it to the job. I never quite get these comedians who say ‘I’m not changing for THEM. I’m ME.’ And then they get fired, or whatever it might be.

I booked myself into Oral Roberts University once, just to see if I could play it. And they said ‘We don’t like drug jokes or sex jokes. Politics, do whatever you want.’ All right, fine. I did the show, they were a great audience, they were fine.

I don’t quite get how tailoring your material to your audience is bad. In terms of a business decision, you know?

 

There are people in comedy who still resent the whole Conan episode, and resent that you matched yourself to that job …

Here’s the thing, OK? When Conan came up, (network president) Don Ohlmeyer didn’t like him. He was going to give him 13 weeks. And I said to Don look, I’ll promote Conan every night, say who his guests are, tell people to stay tuned. That’ll help.

Things go along fine, and I get a call: ‘Conan’s people want you out. They want the Tonight Show or they’re going to another network.’ And I said guys, read my contract. It’s a pay and play, not pay or play. I don’t want to get money without work I’m pay and play, you have to keep me on the air for the five years. As long as the ratings are there.

OK.

And look, when they want you out, you’re out. You can’t bitch and moan about it. I thought I was being gracious: I’m going to retire in five years, Conan’s coming up, OK, fine.

In that interim, Craig Ferguson came along. And suddenly he was beating Conan. And they (NBC) were like ‘Uh-oh. What have we done here?’ I said guys, it’s not my call. And I was getting calls from ABC and CBS about going over there.

And then they (NBC) came to me and said ‘will you do this 10:00 show?’ I said that doesn’t make any sense. They said ‘Look, we’ll pay your staff for two years, pay everybody’s salary, regardless of what happens.’ I said all right, let’s try that, OK.

We tried the 10:00 show, and it didn’t work. And they came up with the idea ‘You want to go on from 11:30 to 12?’ And I said, that’s just going to cause a lot of rancor. Let’s call Conan and see where they are with that.

And that’s when he quit. And to NBC, this solved the problem. They said (to me) ‘OK, you’re back in your spot again.’ From their point of view, it was clever like a fox. It was the same problem with me and Dave – they had a hit show at 11:30, and a hit show at 12:30. Moving Letterman down to the Tonight Show at 11:30 would not necessarily have guaranteed a hit. And there was a hole at 12:30 now.

Conan came to NBC, and it was not a success. I don’t know how that was my fault. I would read these articles, Leno Demanded the Tonight Show Back, and They Had to Give it To Him! How did I get fired in the first place if they had to give it to me? That doesn’t make any sense. Or they ‘had to’ pay me 150 million. There’s no 150 million. That’s based on what?

So I never answered any of it. I just let it play itself out. Howard Stern and all those guys went on and on, and that’s fine. That’s fine. Guys, do what you gotta do.

You know something? If you’re worth saving, people will save you. If you have to save yourself, that’s not a good sign. And that’s what I did. I said I’ll let other people speak for me, and we’ll see what happens. And it turned out fine.

I mean, I was sorry about it, but I’m not quite sure what I could have done differently. People said ‘Well, you shouldn’t have taken the Tonight Show! Why? It’s a job. When I took the Tonight Show from Johnny, there were people who said ‘They should have ended the Tonight Show and retired it! It’s an insult!’

Well, no. It’s a business. It’s a going concern. Somebody has to do it. And they find somebody to do it.

It’s a job. It ended. I don’t wallow in it, I don’t boo-hoo it. It’s a job.

Happier times. Photo: Viking Press.

 

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ward G Smith

    January 30, 2022at10:33 am

    Great stuff Bill. Way to capture Jay

  2. Avatar

    Patricia Carr

    January 29, 2022at1:09 pm

    Remarkably incisive and revealing interview, Bill. Well done! A very interesting read and insight from Leno’s perspective.

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