LENO, JAY

U.S. Comedian

With 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

Leno 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.

As 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 public.

Though 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.

Seeking 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.

During 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.

Leno 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 TV Guide.

-Paula Gardner

 


Jay Leno
Photo courtesy of NBC

JAY 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.

TELEVISION

1977 The Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.Show
1986 Saturday Night Live (one-time host)
1987-92 The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (exclusive guest host)

1992- The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (host)

TELEVISION SPECIALS (selection)

1986 Showtime Special (host)
1987 Jay Leno's Family Comedy Hour

FILMS

The Silver Bears, 1978; American Hot Wax, 1978; Collision Course, 1988.

FURTHER READING

Carter, Bill. The Late Shift; Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Carter, Graydon. "The Joker." Rolling Stone (New York), 2 November 1989.

Freeman, Michael. "Look Who's Laughing Now." Mediaweek (Brewster, New York), 1 May 1995.

Kaufman, Joan. "Profile (Whew!) of a Funny Man." People Weekly (New York), 30 November 1987.

Stengel, Richard. 1992. "Midnight's Mayor." Time (New York), 16 March 1992.

Tauber, Peter. "Jay Leno: Not Just Another Funny Face." New York Times Magazine, 26 February 1989.

 

See also Carson, Johnny; Late Night with David Letterman/The Late Show with David Letterman; Letterman, David; Talk Shows; Tonight Show