Is Jay Leno ready for prime time? Definitely, he says. This month, Leno steps down from NBC’s Tonight Show slot, which he’s held for l7 years, to launch a new nightly show in September that will air at 10 p.m. alongside heavy-duty TV dramas.
Leno hung tough and funny as he tossed off thousands of jokes — 130,000 if you kept count. Along the sometimes rocky way, he battled his pal and rival David Letterman to earn the “King of Late Night” crown, but soon that era ends when he hands over the sacred 11:30 p.m. slot to Conan O’Brien.
Leno’s week-long departure begins May 25 with guest appearances by big guns that include Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, comics Billy Crystal and Wanda Sykes, Mel Gibson and Conan O’Brien.
Leno delivered his first monologue as the show’s host back in May l992, with a gag about Vice President Dan Quayle’s comments on TV character Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) becoming a single mother.
This week, the 59-year-old comic-turned-talk-show-icon, who this year was named America’s Favorite TV Personality by the Harris Poll, and who followed in the footsteps of Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson in the late-night spot, talked about his almost two decades at the helm — and why he is looking forward to his new nightly gig.
VCReporter: What can you tell us about your last Tonight Show week?
Leno: I guess it will be emotional. I have planned a spontaneous moment. It’s kind of a fun . . . a celebration. And then I’ll be back on the air with something a little bit different. We’ve been No. 1 since I came on, and we’re going out No. 1. I’m happy to hand it off and feel like I’m bringing the car back — no dents and with a full tank.
VCR: What can you tell us about your new show?
Well, we haven’t started planning yet. We’re just moving to a new neighborhood. The key will be to have a lot more comedy in the second half-hour. That’s the real trick. People like the monologue and the headline jokes. We haven’t even decided if there will be a chair and a desk.
VCR: Are you worried about going head-to-head at 10 p.m. with some of TV’s most popular dramas?
Well, there’s more drama at 10 p.m. than there’s ever been. Look at the cable networks. And if viewers want to go there they can go there. But I think ten o’clock is more like the new 11:30. Even kids have to get up early for work. I personally like drama —CSI and Law and Order are some of my favorite shows.
VCR: Do you think comedy at that hour will be a good fit?
When I was growing up, there was so much comedy on prime time television — often, all evening long. I was a comedy fan and used to watch Carol Burnett. Our original shows will be on the air longer than the dramas. They run for 21 weeks. We’ll be on for 44 weeks.
VCR: Do you remember the moment when you first heard you’d been hired to take over The Tonight Show?
I was under a car, putting a new clutch in my l969 Lamborgini when my wife came out and told me. She said, “Let’s celebrate,” and I said, “OK, but first I have to finish the clutch.”
VCR: What was the most poignant moment during your l7 years on the show?
John Kennedy Jr. was a guest. I was 12 when Kennedy was assassinated and I remember watching the funeral on TV with my mother. She was crying and we saw the little John John marching at the funeral. So then 40 years later, there I am, I’m introducing John Jr. and I suddenly flashed on my sobbing mother.
VCR: How have you changed since you first began The Tonight Show?
I have the same friends and am married to the same woman, and still drive the same car, although I have a few other cars. I enjoy being a voyeur with all the celebrities. But it doesn’t become my life, and I don’t let it absorb me. I made enough money and I won’t worry if they don’t give me the best table at Morton’s. In fact I don’t go to Morton’s — I go to In-N-Out Burger.
VCR: Have you given any advice to Conan?
I don’t need to because we are both doing versions of the same thing. He’s had the No. 1 show and doesn’t need any advice from me. If he asks, well, sure. But this is a peaceful transition of power. There’s no bloodshed. I really do like the guy. He’s a lot of fun and smart.
VCR: Did Carson ever give you any advice?
From Johnny, I learned that year in and year out, through terrible disasters and horrible things happening, you go on and do your jokes. Your job is to cheer people up. I have a low self-esteem attitude, which makes me work harder. I am somewhat dyslexic, and my mother always told me, “You will have to work harder to get the same thing.”
VCR: Do you ever think about retiring?
I’m half Scottish — and we die at the [coal] mine. It’s what I do. Going to Hawaii and hanging out with a fat American and drinking Mai Tais is my idea of hell. I believe that if you’re not producing something for someone, why are you here.
I’m not a workaholic — I enjoy writing and telling jokes. It’s exciting and silly and makes people laugh.