I first met Jay Leno back in the early 80’s. I had gotten my first television gig as a reporter on WJBK in Detroit working for the local version of PM Magazine. At that time Jay was the hottest comic on the booming comedy club circuit and he was coming to the Comedy Castle. I called his publicist and asked if Jay would be interested in doing an interview with me. He graciously consented and we did a few funny bits and a short interview. My cameraman went nuts with the taping that night, I needed thirty seconds of Jay on stage and he taped almost the entire set. Jay was a little miffed but he never held it against me. A few years later we met again in Hollywood and he invited me over to “the house.” I got to go to Jay’s a few times and got a personal tour of the cars and bikes he was keeping there. Through the years whenever we ran into one another, usually at the Comedy Magic Club in Hermosa Beach when we were working together, he was always quick with a comment to let you know he remembered the last time you had talked.
The recent war of time slots and words between Jay Leno and NBC brings two thoughts to mind. First is that Jay should adopt the old hook of Rodney Dangerfield because he isn’t getting any respect. Second it reminds me of one of the most brilliant and simplest things ever written about show business. One of my favorite books about show business is “Adventures in the Screen Trade” by the great screenwriter William Goldman. Perhaps the most significant insight he gives about show business and especially those who try to run things is that, “Nobody knows anything.”
This has never been a more perfect example of this than in the recent actions by the geniuses running NBC Television. Starting about two years ago the top brass at the peacock network made a decision that the smug hipness of Conan O’Brian was more important than the steady high ratings and common man touch of Jay Leno. Jay’s real sin was that he was getting older. His shock of black Elvis-like hair had gone salt and pepper and then gray. He wasn’t the young hip motorcycle guy with a beef, he was a late middle aged guy who told great jokes and had great numbers. Not good enough!
They announced that Jay would give up The Tonight Show to Conan at the end of his contract. In a moment of lucid thought somebody realized that Jay might not like riding off into the sunset in his mid fifties. He could go to another network. So another genius made up some goofy Tonight Show/non Tonight Show for the 10 P.M. slot and offered it to Jay. It sank like a stone in the ratings. Jay’s fault? I don’t think so.
So now the rumors are flying and Jay is taking verbal jabs at NBC. His recent monologues are vintage Leno and show what a master of the art of stand-up he is. A long time ago when I was hanging with Jay one night he was asked by another comic why he worked so much. Why with The Tonight Show and other money he was making would he jet up to Vegas and do a weekend at Caesar’s? I remember Jay saying something like you only have so much time on top so you have to make the money while you can. He has done that.
I think Jay is past caring if NBC keeps him or not. He has always said he is a comic first and that his ability to do stand-up is the base of everything he does. I think he’ll always find a gig; he’s still at the top of his game. Years ago he begged NBC for a shot on late night TV, now they should be begging him to stay. Personally, I’d like to see him after American Idol on Fox.