“The Jay Leno Show” on NBC at 10 o’clock, Mon.-Fri.

Jay Leno with Margie Barron.

Jay Leno with Margie Barron.

Jay Leno hopped on his motorcycles and roared into a hotel ballroom full of TV writers to announce that he would be the permanent host of “The Tonight Show,” after Johnny Carson’s long run on the late night throne. I was there in 1992 to see him rev his Harley, and notice that he was more than a little uncomfortable as the journalists fire questions at him.
Last month, 17 years later, Leno made a quiet entrance in front of many of the same TV writers to explain his hopes for his new comedy-talk-music-fun variety show on NBC. It’s ambitious for the network, having “The Jay Leno Show” on Monday through Friday at 10 o’clock (Sept. 14 debut), but Leno doesn’t seem bothered by all the fuss.
During the press conference I asked if he could reflect on how he’s changed between rolling in on his hog and now. To no one’s surprise Jay said, “Personally, I don’t really think I’ve changed a whole lot. Not only am I still married to the same woman, I’m still driving the same car. So not a whole lot has changed. I’m still living in the same house. No. I don’t think I’m a whole lot different than I was back then.”
Nah, that’s not true. I noticed Jay was much more comfortable with the pressure of the situation. I reminded him that when he first took over “The Tonight Show,” he almost looked like he was doing Rodney Dangerfield’s routine, sweating and nervous, tugging at his tie. Now he brushes off the burden that NBC is counting on him to get big ratings in primetime. “I’m not counted on to save the network. The network is on its own, screw them,” Leno said laughing.
That’s exactly what I mean, Jay is so relaxed now, not worried about pressure from the network. I asked him where does all the confidence come from? “I’m rich now,” he said happily, getting the biggest laugh at the press gathering. Then he explained, “That’s what it comes down to, you know. If it doesn’t work, I say [making the raspberry sound]. This is what I tell a young performer, ‘Show business pays a lot of money, so when they screw you, you have something left.’ I realize at this point I’m doing it now because I like it. As I’ve said, I don’t have an agent. I don’t have a manager. NBC said ‘How is this deal?’ I said ‘Fine.’ I don’t want to own the show. I never wanted to own property, because I didn’t want to be a landlord. And I don’t want to be a boss. I like doing the show, writing jokes, you know, that whole part of it. The rest of it really doesn’t interest me.”
The Tolucan Times is fondly remembered by Jay Leno, who put the paper on his late-night show a couple of times. And so when I chatted with him away from the crowd, he was happy to let me know why was it so important to keep the show in Burbank?
Jay told me, “You know because there’s a great history of talk shows in Burbank, that goes way back. And I like Burbank, I’m familiar with it. I know Universal City is nice, but I don’t want to be in a theme park. CityWalk always makes me laugh. Only in Los Angeles do you have to build a fake city to walk around. I find that hilarious. That’s why Europeans think we’re nuts.”
He confirmed that he’ll still be doing segments around town. “Oh yeah, we went door to door the other night in Burbank. It’s a lot of fun. Like I said, ‘The Tonight Show,’ ‘Laugh-In,’ all these great shows were done in Burbank, and it was important to keep our show there.”
One of his favorite things he’s looking forward to on the new show is a car racing segment called the Green Challenge with celebrities. Why race eco-friendly cars? “I did it because whenever I would drive an electric, hydrogen or any type of green car to the show, the female guests would go ‘Hey, what is that?’ Without sounding sexist, the guys would always be interested in cars, and the women could care less. But this is something where the women would say, ‘Hey, how does that work?’ And they seemed really interested. I think Drew Barrymore said she would like to drive. So I hope to get the women involved. Patrick Dempsey’s a great race car driver, so I’d love to get him too.”
Right next to his studio on the NBC lot in Burbank is a race track that was built just for the Green Challenge segments that will be part of the show about three times a week.
Who are some of the other guests he’s hoping to land? “Elvis. Yeah. No, once you get the president, that’s pretty good. But I’d love to get Obama again. He was the greatest guest.” Actually the ultra-likable comedian made TV history when he had Barack Obama on “The Tonight Show.” It was the first time a late-night host had the sitting President of the United States as a guest.
Even without President Obama, the lineup for the first week is pretty impressive. So far the list includes Jerry Seinfeld, a performance by Jay Z with Rihanna and Kanye West, Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Miley Cyrus, Halle Berry, a performance by Bruce Hornsby and Eric Clapton, and some young comedians.
Talking about the show, Jay said, “We’re not doing a talk show. Hopefully it won’t look like a talk show. It will have a different feel to it. But I’ll be still be writing jokes and doing a monolog.”
The show is going to have a lot of “correspondents, adding a lot of diversity. I want the show will look like America. It won’t just be a bunch of white guys. I think people will like that aspect of it. We’ll have women. There will be a lot of female input on the show, female writers and performers. So I feel good about that.” Comic D.L. Hughley will be doing a segment in Washington, D.C., having fun trying to raise money for bankrupt California.
“I think Brian Williams will be really funny. He’s a good comic and he will contribute some little segments for us, not weekly, but about twice or three times a month. So I’m thrilled about that.”
John Melendez will be a writer and a contributor to the show. Jay said he’ll also be around to do bits and stuff. “But we’re just not going to have what they call a studio announcer. We’re looking for a lot of new people so it doesn’t look like a rerun of the old show.”
Jay is pleased that test audiences have enjoyed the idea of the show. “Actually, I’m surprised at how good the feed back is. I think it’s going to work, and it will work, and it’ll be fun trying. You know, it’s that ‘let’s have some fun’ feeling is what I would like to get on this show. You kinda come together and have a few laughs before you go to bed. As much as I like ’Law & Order SVU,’ it’s hard to watch someone being violated right before the 11 o’clock news.”
Leno seems to be a person who is pleased with his career right now, and said, “You know something, the real trick is to lead a normal life and make show business money. I have the same friends I had in high school. I’m still married to the same woman. I’m still driving the same car, actually. So it’s fun. It’s fun to come home and have enough money to take care of relatives, or any problems that people have, without going crazy. It’s just a matter of putting things in perspective.
What was is first car? “My first car is a ‘34 Ford pick up truck. I bought it when I was 14. I spent two years driving up and down the driveway. And I was always the designated driver in high school. I went to Hanover High School, and when there was a party I would be the one getting stuck with driving all the drunk kids home. They were all my friends.”
These days after a little bit of a health scare, Jay is trying to take better care of himself. “I’ve been cutting down on the pizza. You see I’ve lost weight. I now run four miles a day. I run two miles in the morning, and two miles at night. Then I work out.”
He has to be in shape to handle his grueling schedule, putting the show together, while still doing stand up and weekend Vegas gigs. When he did have some time off, Jay did a free concert in Detroit.
“Detroit was great. I had a great time. The people were wonderful. We did these free shows there. You know I was a little worried because we had a total of 40,000 people. Two shows with 20,000 at each. And we had eight security guards. But we had the politest, nicest people come in and sit down. They were very appreciative that we came from Hollywood to do a show for them. It was totally free. They didn’t have to pay for parking. We gave them a drink and a bag of Doritos. It was just wonderful. I had a really wonderful time.”
Would he like to travel with the new show? Jay said, “You can’t travel. You can’t take the show on the road because of budgets these days. And no one wants to fly from Hollywood to go do your show somewhere else.”
Have the other talk show hosts called to wish him well? Jay said, “Jimmy Kimmel is a friend of mine. You know there are only four or five people in the world who do this, and it’s fun to have a relationship with them. Craig Fergusson is a friend of mine. I like him very much. He’s a very funny guy. And Kimmel, I’ve done his show a couple of times. And Conan O’Brian, and Jimmy Fallon. I mean, Dave Letterman and I haven’t spoken in years, and that’s kind of sad. Other than that, we all get along pretty good. We all do the same thing.”
What does he think of George Lopez and Wanda Sykes getting into it? Jay said, “I’m sure George will do fine, and I love Wanda Sykes. I think she’s great. I think she’s funny. I was hoping to get Wanda on my show to work with me. George and Wanda and the rest are all on at 11 o’clock. I’m the only one on at 10. So we’ve got a little jump on them.”
On the personal side, Leno was born in New Rochelle, New York and raised in Andover, Mass. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Emerson College in Boston, before pursuing a career in show business.
Leno got his start as a comedian, performing in comedy clubs around the country. He moved to Los Angeles and began work in television and film, both writing and making appearances in shows such as “Welcome Back Kotter.” Leno made his first appearance on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” on March 2, 1977 and eventually became Carson’s permanent guest host. Leno took over for Carson as the show’s new full-time host in 1992.
In addition to his talk-show career, Leno still regularly performs stand-up comedy. Leno has written two New York Times best-selling children’s books, an autobiography, and published four compilations of his favorite funny newspaper headlines. A car aficionado, Leno has created a website, Jay’s Garage where fans can learn more about cars and peek inside Leno’s famous garage. He and wife Mavis have been married for 29 years. And even with his hectic work schedule, Jay smiled and said, “I spend every night with Mavis. I’m with her all the time.”
Now Monday through Friday at 10, TV viewers can spend every night with Jay Leno.