By Rick Bentley
Jay Leno easily could have used his status as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” to demand long vacations. It never happened: The only days Leno missed in the 16 seasons he hosted the late-night talk show were when he had to be hospitalized for a couple of days because of a raging fever.
Even when NBC executives came to him five years ago with the plan that would give Conan O’Brien “The Tonight Show” job as a way of keeping the red-haired talk show host from moving to ABC, Leno did whatever the bosses wanted.
Leno — only the fourth person to host the NBC late-night show since it started almost 55 years ago — will end his run Friday. He’ll return to NBC in the fall with a new prime-time talk show.
He leaves “The Tonight Show” the same humble way he arrived. (Make all the jokes you want about his big chin, but Leno never let his job give him a big head.)
“The real trick to show business is try not to get too excited. Try not to get too depressed,” Leno said in a telephone interview to discuss his final week as host of “The Tonight Show.” “I have the same friends I had in high school. I’m married to the same woman I had. I’m still driving the same car I had when I dated her — although I got a few more. I come in here, and I enjoy it. I enjoy being a voyeur to show business. I enjoy looking at it and being around it. But it doesn’t become my life. I don’t let it absorb me.”
Many of Leno’s more than 3,800 nights behind the desk have made news. Hugh Grant came clean about an indiscretion. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his run for governor. More than $360,000 was raised for The Twin Towers Fund in 2001, and more than $505,000 was raised to benefit the Red Cross Hurricane Katrina Fund in 2005.
Almost every major celebrity — entertainment, sports, politics — has visited Leno.
He regrets that he never got to chat with two people: Elvis and Jack Benny. Both died before Leno was given the late-night forum.
Out of all his guests, the most memorable was John Kennedy Jr. One of Leno’s most vivid memories from his childhood was watching President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 funeral on TV.
Despite the tenacity he has shown over the years, Leno rejects being called a workaholic. He enjoys the work too much.
And the work was just not “The Tonight Show.” Leno has been on the road almost every weekend to perform his stand-up routine.
He won’t even use his last days on “Tonight” as an excuse to take a break. The day after he says his farewell, Leno will be in Atlantic City.
“I’m a great believer in low self-esteem. The only people I find that high self-esteem are criminals and actors. And if you have low self-esteem and you always assume you’re the dumbest person in the room, you’ll work harder,” Leno jokes.
Although he won’t be back on the air until September, Leno already has started work with his staff on his new prime-time show that takes over the 10 p.m. weeknight time slot that has long been the home for one-hour scripted dramas.
As for the transition to O’Brien taking over “The Tonight Show,” Leno offers no advice. He doesn’t think O’Brien needs any.
“It has just been a peaceful exchange, unlike the Miss California USA pageant,” Leno says.