Penthouse Retrospective

by Phil Berger Originally Published: June, 1993

Jay Leno

For all that, Leno’s first year as host was not an easy one. As the successor to Carson, he was often a target. From late — night rival Arsenio Hall — who was quoted as saying, “I’m going to treat him like we treated the kid on the high school basketball team who was the coach’s son …. We tried to kick his ass, and that’s what I’m going to do — kick Jay’s ass” — to reviewers who faulted him for doing “soft” political material, Leno was under the gun.

And of course there was NBC’s wishy — washy support during the combustible David Letterman affair. When Letterman — whose “Late Night With David Letterman” follows Leno on the peacock network — let it be known he was thinking of leaving NBC, Leno was left to dangle in the wind while his bosses decided what to do about Dave. You remember Letterman’s snit over being bypassed for Leno as “The Tonight Show” host and how his discontent encouraged a bidding war among other networks for his services. That left NBC to decide whether or not to appease Letterman by jettisoning Leno. Well, ultimately NBC let Letterman defect to CBS — his stint at NBC ends June 25. But NBC’s belat­ed endorsement of Leno was hardly a siren cry of loyalty. Still, to para­phrase Chevy Chase, Leno is run­ning “The Tonight Show” … and you’re not, Dave.

With Leno headed for his second season as host of “The Tonight Show,” Penthouse dispatched Phil Berger to Burbank to hear what was on Leno’s mind.

Were you bothered by the indecision at NBC about whether you or David Letterman would host “The Tonight Show”?

No. I’ve been in this business a long time, and the nice thing about being a comedian and working on the road is, every­thing that happens is your own fault because you control your own destiny. It’s self — serving — you’re the writer, the producer, whatever — but again, you hold all the cards. This TV thing is an extra thing. If it worked out, great, and if it didn’t, fine. I didn’t feel so much I was left hanging in the wind. I think it looked a lot worse in print than it was, only because NBC had screwed up their handling of David once already and they were trying to figure out how to keep David here. They had given me the show, they signed a contract. “Well, how do we keep David? Let’s … “ and they kept stretching it out until they finally realized Oh, gee, this isn’t going to work.

So you didn’t feel any agita?

You know something, I would be lying if I said I didn’t. I was fairly confident throughout that we would be okay. I mean, again I did what I do when I’m on the road — you go to the audi­ence. I’d say to myself, okay, there are 212 or some NBC affil­iates, and — this is real odd to me — a lot of people criticize me because they say it’s politicking, but you have half a dozen executives you could go to or you could go to the 212 stations that buy you and ask them, Are you guys happy with it? Is this working for you? The numbers came back good, the ratings were good, the ad revenue and the demographics and all that were fine. They all seemed happy with the show we were doing.

Are you talking about particular stations across the country?

Yeah, I’d call the stations, because I don’t go where I’m not wanted and I’m not on every affiliate, but close, and say, What do you guys want? Should I go? Should I stay? Where do you see it? And unanimously — of course, they were talking to me, but believe me, these guys were businessmen; they would say we feel you should step aside if that’s what they wanted — they all seemed to be saying, No, no, we like it, we’re fine, everything is going great, please don’t mess with the show. Some people had their own suggestions — too much of this kind of music, not enough of this kind of music — okay, that’s fine. But for the most part, they all seemed reason­ably happy.

Jay Leno reveals his personal experience with the not-entirely-glamorous world of the comedy circuit in his early days. His take on the late-night wars may surprise you.