his sanitized comedy appealing to middle class sensibility and ordinary,
nice-guy demeanor, Jay Leno rose from comedy hall fame to win the
coveted host seat of NBC's Tonight Show in 1992. In so doing,
Leno followed in the footsteps of great past hosts, Johnny Carson,
Jack Paar and Steve Allen. As a working-class undergraduate
began his stand-up career in Boston and New York comedy clubs and
strip bars. During the 1970s, he became a popular warm-up act for
such divergent performers as crooner Johnny Mathis and country singer
John Denver, and wrote scripts for the sitcom Good Times,
starring Jimmy Walker. He obtained similar work for David Letterman,
who, after he began hosting Late Night with David Letterman,
granted Leno over forty appearances on the program. Leno became
a popular guest on the Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Tonight
Shows and by 1986 was named one of several guest hosts for the
Tonight Show. An untiring success-seeker, Leno still spent 300
days per year on the road.
a popular stage and television stand-up comic, Leno strives not
to offend, offering non-racist, non-sexist, anti-drug humor. Like
forerunners George Carlin and Robert Klein and contemporary Jerry
Seinfeld, Leno is uncapricious. His focus is on ridiculing the mundane,
the idiocies of social life. His feel-good approach avoids cynicism,
and promotes patriotism; in 1991, for example, he performed for
American Service Personnel stationed in the Middle East. Despite
his penchant for politically liberal jokes, Leno insists that his
humor is non-ideological and thus apolitical. Hence, he appeals
to a conventional and politically diverse, that is, broad American
he was the exclusive guest host for the Tonight Show since
1981, Leno's selection as Johnny Carson's successor caused surprise
and controversy in the industry. David Letterman--whose youth-popular
late, late show had followed up Tonight for years, and created
expensive advertising slots--had been slated for the job. However,
NBC was attracted to the more cooperative Leno, matching his wit
to the older Tonight Show audience. Moreover, an aggressive
Leno promoted himself, working the affiliate station personnel,
who in turn boosted his popularity ratings. Ultimately, Leno was
simply more affordable than Letterman, allowing the Tonight Show
to maintain its $75-$100 million profit base.
Letterman's fans, Leno's Tonight Show featured a renovated
stage, young, popular guests, and the music of popular jazz musician
Branford Marsalis. Controversy came to the set early on when NBC
fired Leno's long-time, tumultuous manager Helen Kushnick, and later
when Marsalis, in a wrangle over artistic control, quit and was
replaced by Kevin Eubanks. Thereafter, Leno faired decently in the
ratings, but failed to impress reviewers as had Carson and Paar.
Accustomed to practicing his routines many times before a show,
Leno suffered agitation with his new, full-week schedule. Moreover,
a year into the show, Leno was faced with a rating war against CBS'
new Late Show, hosted by highly paid competitor, Letterman.
the Late Show's first three years, it regularly bested the
Tonight Show in ratings, particularly with the under 50 crowd.
This was particularly damaging as Tonight had the advantage
of airing a full hour earlier than Late Show across 30% of the nation.
Leno, in comparison to Letterman, was an unseasoned monologist,
and a sometimes distracted interviewer, lacking ad-libbing skills.
To boost ratings, Leno agreed to hire new Tonight writers
and to hawk advertiser's goods--Hondas and Doritos--on air. In early
1995, Tonight revamped the show from talk to a variety format,
creating a comfortable, comedy club-type studio for Leno. A more
responsive and fluid Leno raised Tonight's ratings to competitive
levels, and by 1996 had intermittently regained its status, held
since 1954, as the most popular late night show in the United States.
was frustrated, though not broken by his make-or-break Tonight
Show role; rather, he responded predictably to this mid-career
trauma with more strenuous effort on the set and increased appearances
at Las Vegas clubs and college campuses. An ever popular comic,
Leno has been named Best Political Humorist by Washingtonian
Magazine, and one of the Best Loved Stars in Hollywood, by the
Photo courtesy of NBC
LENO (James Douglas Muir Leno). Born in New Rochelle, New York,
U.S.A., 28 April 1950. Educated at Emerson College, B.A. in speech
therapy 1973. Married: Mavis Nicholson. Performed as stand-up comedian
at such venues as Carnegie Hall and Caesar's Palace; in television
from 1977; in movies from 1978; numerous appearances on Late
Night with David Letterman, 1970s and 1980s; exclusive guest
host on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1987-92; host,
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno from 1992. Address: P.O. Box
7885, Burbank, CA 91510-7885.
The Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.Show
1986 Saturday Night Live (one-time host)
1987-92 The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (exclusive guest
1992- The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (host)
1986 Showtime Special (host)
1987 Jay Leno's Family Comedy Hour
The Silver Bears, 1978; American Hot Wax, 1978; Collision
Carter, Bill. The Late Shift; Letterman, Leno and the Network
Battle for the Night. New York: Hyperion, 1994.
Graydon. "The Joker." Rolling Stone (New York), 2 November
Michael. "Look Who's Laughing Now." Mediaweek (Brewster,
New York), 1 May 1995.
Joan. "Profile (Whew!) of a Funny Man." People Weekly (New
York), 30 November 1987.
Richard. 1992. "Midnight's Mayor." Time (New York), 16 March
Peter. "Jay Leno: Not Just Another Funny Face." New York Times
Magazine, 26 February 1989.
Johnny; Late Night
with David Letterman/The Late Show with David Letterman; Letterman,