Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Albany Daily News. Posted by Ryan Frost
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Ryan Frost
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Jay Leno Show, Jay Leno's Garage
Currently Known For:
Comedian, Actor, Writer, Producer, and Television Host
1990s - Present
April 28, 1950
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Jay Leno Show, Jay Leno's Garage
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“You cannot be mad at somebody who makes you laugh… it’s as simple as that.” One of the biggest names in late night television throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Jay Leno is a standup comedian who received the highest honor in 1992 when NBC invited him to take over The Tonight Show for the legendary Johnny Carson. Putting his own spin on things with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the New York native spent 17 years on late night before retiring in 2009 when Conan O’Brien briefly took over his spot. Leno, however, wasn’t finished and returned to his award-winning show in 2010 with his second run wrapping up four years later in 2014 when he handed the reins to comedian Jimmy Fallon. Now inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, let’s take a look at the 68-year-old’s journey from vagrancy to late night television and what the second chapter of his career looks like today!
One of New York’s Funniest Men: Early Life
James Douglas Muir Leno came into this world on April 28, 1950 in New Rochelle, New York where his father was an insurance salesman of Italian ancestry and his mother, a Scotland immigrant, was a homemaker. Growing up in the rural town of Andover, Massachusetts, there was little for Leno and his older brother, Patrick, to do for fun, which is how Leno’s passion for cars blossomed. “There were always broken tractors, lawn mowers, vehicles you had to fix,” Leno recalled. “I remember somebody had abandoned an old Renault in a field when we were about 11 or 12. We would drive it around the backyard. Your mom would kind of watch through the window… it taught you how to fix cars and get things running.”
As his passion for cars followed him into adulthood, Leno graduated from Andover High School and enrolled at Emerson College where he earned his degree in speech therapy. While in college, he pursued his love of comedy and started his own comedy club in 1973 before graduating with his bachelor’s degree and heading to Los Angeles with the hopes of launching his career as a standup comedian.
Like many aspiring comedians, Leno had a rough start to his career in Los Angeles and, with very little money to his name, was arrested twice for vagrancy. “I just got on a plane one day and went to Los Angeles,” he recalled. “I looked in the paper for open houses, say, from noon to 4 p.m., and I would get there at 3:30, and then I would hide in the closet. The realtor would leave and lock the door, and now I had a place to stay. Sometimes, I could stay in a house two to three days. I didn’t wreck anything. I did get picked up twice for vagrancy on Hollywood Boulevard. In fact, where I got my Walk of Fame star was where the cops picked me up. They’d put you in the back of the car, and they’d drive you around their entire shift, and then let you out in the morning.”
Despite his troubles, Leno was determined to launch his career and started hanging around The Comedy Store, performing whenever possible and even sleeping on the stairs at night long after the venue had closed. Then, after four years in the city, Leno’s luck changed when someone from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson caught his act and invited him to perform as a guest on the show. Leno made his television debut on The Tonight Show on March 2, 1977. With an obvious knack for making people laugh, Leno snagged minor roles in television series and films like Good Times, Fun with Dick and Jane, American Hot Wax, and Silver Bears.
Throughout the 1980s, Leno continued making appearances in television and film but focused most of his attention on comedy and performed his stand-up routine at every local comedy club that would book him. He made a handful of appearances on Late Night with David Letterman but soon became a staple on The Tonight Show where he was named Carson’s regular substitute in 1987. Over the next five years, Leno frequently filled in for Carson until 1992 when he was named Carson’s successor in a decision that rocked the world of late-night television since many assumed Letterman would get the coveted spot.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Carson didn’t have a say in naming his replacement since the decision was entirely up to the network. This made it even easier for Letterman to switch gears when he took Carson’s advice and moved to NBC’s rival network, CBS, where he was given his own show—The Late Show with David Letterman—opposite Leno’s newly named, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Taking Over Late Night: The Tonight Show
For the first few years, Leno struggled to find his footing in terms of ratings but all that changed in 1994 when actor Hugh Grant joined Leno on The Tonight Show. During the episode, Grant talked about the controversy following the time he spent with a prostitute, which boosted The Tonight Show ratings and put the show ahead of Letterman for the next decade until Leno was given the jolt of his life. In 2004, during the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere, NBC announced that Leno’s tenure as host would end in 2009 and that he would be replaced by Conan O’Brien.
During the announcement, Leno seemed open to the idea saying, “I’ll be 59 when the switch occurs, that’s five years from now. There’s really only one person who could have done this into his 60s, and that was Johnny Carson; I think it’s fair to say I’m no Johnny Carson...” He also subtly addressed the drama following his own succession over Letterman by describing the show as a dynasty. “You hold it and hand it off to the next person,” he added. “And I don’t want to see all the fighting… Conan, it’s yours! See you in five years, buddy!”
In 2008, just a year before his departure from The Tonight Show, many speculated that Leno was moving to another network after his contract with NBC expired; however, that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, NBC announced that Leno would host an hour-long special at 10 p.m. five nights a week called The Jay Leno Show, which would keep many of Leno’s most popular segments and precede O’Brien on the new Tonight Show. The first episode of The Jay Leno Show aired in September 2009 with Leno hosting popular guests like Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah Winfrey, and Kanye West.
While the show was designed to give late night a run for its money, both Leno and O’Brien suffered in the ratings. Even local affiliates were upset as they lost viewers to Leno’s new 10 p.m. show. This prompted NBC to make another change when they moved Leno back to late night at 11:35 p.m. and pushed O’Brien to 12:05 a.m., the first time in history The Tonight Show aired after midnight. This forced O’Brien to give NBC an ultimatum saying, “I believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t The Tonight Show.”
In January 2010, NBC struck a deal with O’Brien who agreed to leave The Tonight Show for $33 million with his staff receiving $12 million in exchange for Leno’s return to the host’s chair. O’Brien’s final episode aired on January 22, 2010 and Leno returned over a month later on March 1, 2010. Spending the next three years in the seat, NBC announced Leno’s second departure was set for 2014 with Jimmy Fallon named as his successor. This time, the transition was far easier than before with Leno’s final show marking the end of an era with special guests like Jack Black, Oprah Winfrey, Jim Parsons, Kim Kardashian, and Carol Burnett.
Life After The Tonight Show
Since his retirement from late night television in 2014, Leno has stayed incredibly busy and has returned to his roots as a stand-up comedian. He’s given over 200 live performances each year across the United States and Canada in addition to performing at special charity events and USO tours as well as making guest appearances on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Myers, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
Apart from making the rounds on late night and adding in appearances in The Muppets, Last Man Standing, and Lip Sync Battle, Leno hosts Jay Leno’s Garage, a web series that showcases his passion for cars and his collection of over 180 automobiles and more than 160 motorcycles. “The general rule of car collecting is if you’re reasonably astute and understand how things work, if you like it, chances are other people will like it, too. My three things are: It should be of technical and historical significance. It should be fun to drive. And it should be attractive to look at. If an automobile has those three qualifications, then it’s probably something that would be considered collectible,” Leno says.
While Leno is quick to spend his fortune on cars, that’s about the only lavish expense he has especially since he started out in Hollywood as a vagrant. “I’m not an experienced person,” Leno says. “I know I’m pretty wealthy, but I live like someone who’s on their last dime. I take nothing for granted. I don’t take vacations. When you’re in show business, you get to go to vacation places. I enjoy doing philanthropy and stuff. I like feeling like if I don’t work this week, I’m going to go broke. People say, ‘Why do you work all the time?’ I go, ‘What do I do on a Tuesday that’s worth this kind of money?’ A job comes up, and I always feel like I was broke for so long, I never wanted to be in the position of, ‘Well, how much is that job? Oh no, I’m not…’ It just seems so presumptuous to turn down.”
In fact, Leno argues that he hasn’t spent any of the money he earned from The Tonight Show and, instead, lives solely off the money he earns from his stand-up routines, which is enough to provide for him and his wife, Mavis Leno, whom he married in 1980. “I work and my money relaxes—that’s the way I look at it,” he says. “I live pretty frugally. I’m a huge believer in low self-esteem. The only ones with high self-esteem are actors and criminals. I’m dyslexic. My mother would say, ‘You’re going to have to work twice as hard as the other kid to get the same thing,’ and that always seemed like a fair trade off. The nice thing about being dyslexic—people tend to focus on something and then that becomes their goal. That always worked pretty well for me. I’ve always had two jobs, and I lived on one job and banked the other…”
Today, the 68-year-old Leno has plenty of advice for aspiring comedians when it comes to jokes and keeping their finances in check. After all, he earned everything the hard way—by putting in the time and effort. “When you’re a comedian, you can always generate income. You can always stand somewhere and tell jokes and get paid for it,” he says. “My advice is just take the job. Don’t worry about how much it pays. I’m always astounded when I meet comedians who go, ‘I’m not going there for that kind of money,’ and I go, ‘Who are you? You haven’t done anything. No one knows who you are.’ If you’re any good, the money will come. Pay attention to your product. If you’re not making enough money, it’s ‘cause you’re not good enough.”