By the time he arrived on the set of Tonight in May 1992 as NBC's replacement for Johnny Carson, Jay Leno was known as "the hardest-working man'' in show business. Typically he was on the road for as many as 250 engagements a year.
Born James Douglas Muir Leno on April 28, 1950, in New Rochelle, New York (three years after Letterman), Leno was the son of an Italian-American insurance agent from Andover, Massachusetts. At insurance company conventions, Angelo Leno gave the comic introductions of the vice president. Indeed, the senior Leno never missed an occasion to present his humorous take on life, and this ability impressed his son. While his father's side of the family were "boisterous, fun and food-loving Italians," Leno's Scottish relatives believed in restraint and keeping a lid on their emotions. His mother had immigrated to the United States from Scotland when she was ten. In 1959 the Leno family moved to Andover, where Leno acquired his working-class New England accent.
Leno, like Letterman, honed his comedy talent in his college years. A student at Emerson College in Boston, Leno chose a speech major because it allowed him to take oral final exams. He had a form of dyslexia that affected his ability to read, but he retained almost everything he heard in class. Rejected by the college's comedy workshop, he got together with classmate Gene Braunstein, later producer of the sit com Who's the Boss!, to form a comedy team called ''Gene and Jay'' that played coffee houses and clubs in the Boston area. Later Leno soloed in a wide range of comedy clubs in the Boston and New York area. By the early 1970s he was a familiar presence on the New York comedy scene.
In 1974, the year before Letterman launched his own Los Angeles comedy career, Leno moved to Hollywood's entertainment capital. He faced a number of rebuffs. A William Morris agent told him he would never go anywhere, and an NBC casting director told him he should dye his hair and recast his jutting jaw. Leno persisted. A generous supporter of other comics, Leno also was fiercely competitive. ''My slogan has always been: Sooner or later, the other person is going to have to eat, sleep, drink, go on vacation, have sex, do something. And that's when you catch him.''15 Along with his drive and durability, Leno was always accessible: to customers and people in the comedy clubs, to fellow comics, to the press. ''I'm not one of those guys who run out the door once the show is over,'' he said in a 1996 interview. ''I like people— I think that comes across. ... If you're working a high-school gym in Des Moines, it puts things in perspective."16 In addition, Leno was very analytical about his comedy routines. He would test them out in every conceivable comedy club and work late into the night to perfect a routine or series of jokes.
In an interview in the Washingtonian magazine in 1993, Leno explained his rules for political humor. The first, he said, was never to let people know how you feel politically. ''And not to get personal,'' he added. ''I once saw a comedian do a whole bit about [President] Reagan's neck, how it looked like a turkey's, and I told him afterward, 'That's not a political joke—a person can't help the fact that he's old. Go after what he says and does—that's political humor.'''17 Another of Leno's rules: ''Go after whoever's in power . . . you're not making fun of the man, but of the office. Whoever's vice president is going to catch it, and Quayle [Vice President to George Bush, 1988-1992] made it a bit easier with some of the things that happened. But it's never really personal.''18 When questioned about comedy's political influence and power, Leno said, ''You don't change anybody's mind, you just reinforce what they already believe.''19
Leno's remarks in the Washingtonian are a succinct statement of mainstream ideology in TV comedy. Some analytic case studies support Leno's observation. Constantinos Economopoulos, for example, came to a similar conclusion in his study of monologues from the Tonight show from July through November 1992. During this period of time,
George Bush, the sitting President, ''was the subject of 154 jokes, more than twice that of Clinton. Further, the percent negativity for Clinton was 81 percent to Perot's 88 percent and Bush's 93 percent.''20 Thus, as a candidate seeking office, Bill Clinton had faired relatively well in comedy routines—and in public opinion polls as well.21 The situation reversed itself six years later, when Clinton had been President for one and one-half terms and was the butt of a comedy onslaught at the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Now, as sitting President, Clinton, the ensconced symbol of power, was the target.22
Leno's skills as a comedian were considerable and acknowledged by all. But his skills as a strategist within the business of broadcasting would be put to the test when he decided, with his personal manager, Helen Kushnick, to go for the job of host of the Tonight show.
Leno on Tonight (1992-1995)
Things did not look promising in Jay Leno's first days as host of the Tonight show. Some of Leno's problems stemmed from a show that was obviously quite raw and had not had time to find itself. Other problems came from Leno's producer, Helen Kushnick, whose aggressive take-no-prisoners style began to antagonize many.23 Leno's ''nice-guy'' image did not seem to fit as the successor to the crafty, indomitable Carson. On the other hand, Letterman, a tireless and obsessive perfectionist, kept his nightly appearances sharp-honed. His press notices became increasingly positive in this early period as Leno's went downhill.
Washington Post critic Tom Shales, a long-time Letterman supporter, panned Leno's first Tonight appearance. He pointed to a series of awkwardnesses in the new show. Jeff Jarvis, reviewing Leno's show in his ''Couch Critic'' column of TV Guide, thought Leno pitiful—a man ''begging to be loved.''24 USA Today ran a cover story on Leno entitled, ''Taking It on the Chin: Leno Deflects a Barrage of Criticism.'' One Newsweek critic thought that the negative reviews had gone too far, and argued that the press should call off its ''Jay-Bashing.''
While Leno's press was not good, his relationship with the NBC brass was. Leno gained internal support by his hard work, loyalty to the company, and willingness to sell the show twenty-four hours a day. He had the support of network executives like Warren Littlefield, and he worked assiduously to develop affiliate support as well. Just as his father had sold insurance door to door, Leno crossed the country doing stand-up and talking to local NBC executives. ''My attitude was to go out and rig the numbers,'' Leno said. ''To go out and actually meet the customers who buy your product just seems like sound business.''25 As a result of his consistent salesmanship and willingness to work within the NBC system, Leno was often able to tweak the noses of his employers in his comedy act without causing lasting harm. He could do things that in retrospect sounded outrageous—like listening in secretly to negotiations by NBC executives discussing his future—and somehow make it right in the end.
All of Leno's hard work eventually paid off. The late-night talkshow wars of 1992-1995 featured so prominently in the news that New York Times critic Bill Carter wrote a book about the competition between Leno and Letterman that was made into an HBO docudrama. Within two years a remarkable transformation had occurred. The HBO docudrama, which detailed Letterman's early triumph, seemed badly dated. By November 1995, Jay Leno and his NBC Tonight show team had shifted the balance of power in late night.26
The ratings picture tells the story. At the beginning of 1995, Letter-man had a commanding lead with 5.3 in the ratings (i.e., 5.3 percent of all TV households were tuned to CBS) and a 16 share (16 percent of all stations on at the time).27 By the end of the year, Leno had reversed these numbers. Leno now had a 4.7/14 ratings/share ratio to Letter-man's 3.9/12. Not only that, he had consistently scored better than Letterman in the crucial eighteen-to-forty-nine-year-old age group, a category in which Letterman had always done well.28 Critical attention and awards were building for the Tonight show as well. In September 1995, Leno's version of Tonight captured the Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series—the same award Letterman had won in 1994.29
Media critics cited CBS's faltering prime-time lineup as one of the causes of Leno's success. CBS had lost affiliates to the new Fox network, which further eroded its audience. Letterman pointed out that Leno's ratings had never ''come up'' to his; his own ratings had simply ''gone down.''30 Indeed, the ten-month ratings trend from January to October of 1995 showed the combined late-night talk-show ratings of Leno and Letterman slipping from 9.9 percent of all TV households to 8.6 percent, while Ted Koppel's Nightline held surprisingly strong. In the Manichaean logic of this two-person ''war'' for the top spot in late-night comedy talk, Leno's fate was tied to Letterman's. As Letterman went down, Leno went up. And the press was beginning to weigh in on Leno's side. If Leno never showed his true feelings beneath his iron-
man comedy routines and a schedule that awed even his own staff (''I'm convinced Jay's an alien,'' his executive producer was quoted as saying. ''He can outlast anybody. I don't think he has red blood . . .''31), Letter-man was portrayed as a case of walking nerve ends. Even when Letter-man was still ahead in the ratings in 1995, there was, said Time critic Richard Zoglin, ''uneasiness in the kingdom of Letterman.''32 Letterman had expanded his monologue, and his show was in every way ''bigger, louder, flashier.'' It was also significantly ''less adventurous. . . . The grumbly, peevish Letterman of Studio 6A days could sometimes be a drag,'' said Zoglin, ''but the upbeat Letterman who resurfaced on CBS seemed strangely 'defanged.'''33
Longtime Letterman enthusiast Tom Shales of the Washington Post also noted the strain on Letterman and his entourage. In June 1996, he reported a string of ''woes'' that had afflicted the Letterman show during the preceding year. Letterman's performance as host of the Academy Award ceremonies had been widely panned. The CBS executive who had wooed the star to CBS, Howard Stringer, had left the network. Letterman's longtime director, Hal Gurnee, had gone into retirement, and his head writer, Rob Burnett, was stepping down.34 Soon, producer Robert Morton would be reassigned to another part of the Letterman organization. Signs of struggle and dissatisfaction appeared at the top of the organization, and the ''triumphant'' pictures of Letter-man with cigar in hand were replaced by pictures of a host with a distraught, furrowed, and anxious look on his face. By the summer of 1996, the formerly reticent host gave a ''Dave (Really) Talks'' interview to Parade magazine. The cover read: ''The usually guarded host of The Late Show with David Letterman reveals his feelings about his father, his loves, fishing, Indiana and whether he'll quit late-night TV.''35 It was all very embarrassing for many longtime Letterman fans.
Nothing Letterman did seemed to offset Leno's ratings and publicity success. If anything, the publicity coming out of the Letterman camp had the opposite effect. Leno had been, if nothing else, consistent. He had become the ''terminator'' of stand-up comedy, an unstoppable force. As Letterman's image zigged and zagged, Leno's solidified.
Critics tried to account for Leno's new success and plumb the mysteries of his show-business personality. Profiles of Leno dwelt on certain themes. There was Jay Leno the master satirist of consumer society. Then there was Leno the genial corporate trickster—a loyal company man who could get away with playing tricks even on his own boss. And there was Jay Leno the robo-comic: a man who on the surface was a warm, humane, compassionate comedian, but whose comedy persona masked an almost inhuman imperviousness to the pain, insults, and daily degradations of show business. Finally, there was Leno the comedy technician who worked on jokes the way he worked on engines in his fleet of motorcycles and cars.
Some attributed Leno's success to his famous work ethic. Subsisting on four hours sleep a night, Jay Leno was characteristically at his Tonight show office in Burbank by nine o'clock each morning and rarely got home before nine or ten in the evening. By midnight Leno's friend, Tonight show writer Jimmy Brogan, would come over to Leno's hillside mansion and work until two or three in the morning honing the next day's monologue. While Carson's contracts steadily expanded his days off, giving him the chance to recuperate from the grueling daily schedule, Leno argued with network officials to give him less time off.36 He told interviewer Bill Zehme in 1995 that he was "miserable." ''To me, a week's vacation just means you're now a week behind.''37
On the surface a nice, warm guy who just wanted to get along well with everyone, Jay Leno was clearly more complicated than that. Just beneath the genial surface was a man so driven that he could erase ''problems'' as if they never existed. Referring to his long, intimate, and ultimately painful relationship with personal manager Helen Kush-nick, he told interviewer Bill Zehme, ''I look at that whole relationship as like a bad two weeks out of my life. Never happened.''38
By 1996 Jay Leno had joined Letterman and Carson as a national comedy icon. He had proved his staying power and ratings clout. The late-night talk-show wars had come full cycle. Jay Leno was head to head with Letterman, and his stock was rising. Of course, the situation, which had changed before, could change again. American popular culture seemed enthralled with battles between name products and personalities: Coke vs. Pepsi, Avis vs. Hertz, Letterman vs. Leno. The producer of the Letterman show had commented during the mid-1980s writers' strike that the TV brass just didn't ''get it.'' Talk shows are not simply packaged. They are built from the center, he said, around their hosts.39 Jay Leno and his producers had worked hard to revise the show from its center, making the set, the monologue, and the sensibility of the show a successful product of the American television marketplace. They had succeeded.
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