Jay Leno Remembers Life Before the Ratings Race
Live performance is still first love of 'Tonight Show' host
BOSTON — In Jay Leno's opinion, it's time to move beyond the "war" between him and fellow late-night talk-show host David Letterman.
"I'm amazed it's still a story," he says in a recent telephone press conference. "I don't think either one is going to knock the other off the air. We both try to be No. 1, that's really the story."
But in the early 1990s, the battle between these two comedians over who would succeed Johnny Carson on NBC's "The Tonight Show" was a hot topic, one that critics have faulted Leno for leaving out of his new book "Leading With My Chin" (HarperCollins).
Leno is currently on the road to talk about his book. He says his goal was to chronicle the time in his life before he was well known, not the events surrounding his taking over "The Tonight Show" in 1992 - ground he says Bill Carter already covered in his "reasonably accurate" 1994 book, "The Late Shift."
"I never claimed it was an autobiography, I don't call it an autobiography," Leno says chuckling. "I call it funny memoirs, funny road stories about life on the road as a comedian."
And that it is. Most of the quick read is humorous anecdotes about what happened to the diligent, work-hungry, and often naive Leno on his way to the top.
He has plenty of fodder, having spent "more than two-thirds of every year playing one-nighters in every state in the nation," before permanently becoming a host, he writes. He performed in strip clubs and Carnegie Hall, in the dark and in a cage.
But despite Leno's protestations, the book, written with the help of friend Bill Zehme, does have an autobiographical flavor.
It includes stories about Leno's childhood and his late parents - a first-generation Italian-American and his Scottish wife. The younger of two boys, Leno was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., and raised in Andover, Mass. He writes of his formative years, including his first grown-up joke (fourth grade), a high school job at McDonald's, and his love of cars.
He began doing stand-up comedy while in college in Boston, eventually turning to it full time. After moving to Los Angeles, Leno also appeared in movies like "American Hot Wax," with Fran Drescher of "The Nanny" fame, and had bit parts on TV in "Laverne & Shirley" and "One Day at a Time."
But a career in acting didn't interest this funny-man.
"I like being a comedian," he explains. "There is this odd sort of thing in Hollywood that ... movies are at the top, live performance is at the bottom, and TV is somewhere in the middle.
"I always liked live performances," he says. "When you do a movie, you tell a joke in August, and then next July you find out if anybody thinks it's funny."
Not so with his job hosting "The Tonight Show," he says. "You walk out, it's a live audience, you have some jokes prepared, you may ad-lib ... anything could happen. I like that feeling."
It has taken a while for Leno to find his footing with late-night viewers. "The Tonight Show" lost consistently to Letterman's "Late Show" in the ratings when the latter debuted on CBS in 1993. But in the last year, the tables have turned, thanks in part to Leno's landing the first interview with actor Hugh Grant after his well-publicized arrest for lewd conduct.
Leno's show has also changed its format since the early days. He has started doing more skits and man-on-the-street bits (once solely Letterman's domain). It is less of a talk-show than it once was, he says.
"When I started in '92, we did like a four-minute monologue ... and then we'd sometimes have four guests." Now the monologue is about 11 minutes long, there are fewer guests, and "the first half hour seems to be pretty much a comedy show."
Leno has remained true to Carson's practice of featuring up-and-coming comedians on the program, an opportunity that Leno first had in 1977. He says it is an event a comic doesn't soon forget.
"When you're on 'The Tonight Show' for the first time, you're officially in show business," he says. "From that point on, you're just constantly fighting to stay in."