Penthouse Retrospective

by Phil Berger Originally Published: June, 1993

Jay Leno

The situation was, David had made a tremendous amount of money for the network, been here for ten years, was a very strong, solid performer with a proven track record. My track record was only six months old, if you don’t count all the guest — hosting stuff, so it could have gone the other way. I was fairly confident that it wouldn’t.

What’s your reaction to David going over to CBS in the same time slot?

Well, I think it will make everybody better and sharper. I didn’t have any problem when I used to go to the Comedy Store and the lmprov, and I still do it. But when I was starting out, all the comics would say, Oh, jeez, I don’t want to go on after Richard Pryor, I don’t want to go on after Robert Klein, I don’t want to go on after David Brenner. But I used to think, jeez, that’s the spot to go on, because if you could hold that audience after those guys had gone on, you’re doing pretty good. That’s how you know you’re getting better. I mean, to me, too many comedians lead the sheltered life where they go, Well, I only play colleges because they’re the ones that like me, or I only play cruise ships, or I only play Vegas. I don’t want to go to … You know the minute they face an audience that doesn’t like what they’re doing, they run and go back to the audience that liked them. My attitude was always, when you start doing well somewhere, get the hell out. Move on to the next town.

Who will get the ratings?

I think you’ll find when David moves down in time and “The Tonight Show” and “Nightline” are on, the number of people watching late — night TV is up because there’s more stuff on. If David’s got some­body that’s exciting, you’ll watch David for a while, then maybe you’ll click back, you know what I’m say­ing? David is classy and he’s funny and he has good taste and good standards. It’s not a show that I would be embarrassed to get beaten by, if that’s what happens. But put it this way: If you’re losing to “Studs,” you might as well quit the business.

Being a guest when Carson ran “The Tonight Show” wasn’t always easy for you, was it?

No. I had done “The Tonight Show” a few times, and like most new comedians in the seventies, first time is great, second time is okay, third time is fair, and the fourth time is probably fair to poor. It is something I warn comedians about all the time — that it’s diminishing. You’ve got to start off strong and get stronger. Anyway, after about the fourth time, they weren’t really thrilled. I hadn’t made a mark, I hadn’t gotten a series, I wasn’t that good. I think what I had perceived as my next shot was stuff I wouldn’t do in the last one. They weren’t calling, and I wasn’t calling them. It was my fault, I’m not blaming the show — I wasn’t as good as I should have been. Plus, I was very joke-oriented. I wasn’t a wise guy or a smart guy, the way I would be in a club, because I always felt this great rever­ence towards Johnny Carson. I would sit down at the panel and go, “Oh thank you, Mr. Carson.” I was way too polite. I felt awkward being on a first-name basis with Ed and Johnny. It seemed odd to me because I was a kid and these were men and well respected.

They were more like icons?

Well, yeah, you know, I couldn’t tease them, and Letterman was the first show where everybody on the show, includ­ing David himself, was about my age­ late twenties, early thirties. If I said here’s a thing I want to do, they would get it. It’s a bit like trying to do a “Sat­urday Night Live” sketch in prime time, because a lot of times their sketches might not have an ending, but they have these funny, quirky things that are just indigenous — is that the word? — to this particular generation. You either get it or you don’t. It isn’t a payoff kind of thing. Letterman was the first show where I’d really go on there and make fun of the host. I would sit down and go, “What a dump this is!” and David would laugh, and then I’d needle him. Where I’d feel Oh my God! if I did that with Johnny. I’d feel, jeez ..

Has anything surprised you about this first year as host of “The Tonight Show”?

Yeah, obviously, a lot of things could have been handled differently. I’m more comfortable now to take a much more active role in the show than I had been before. I enjoy the sort of executive­ producer part of the show, although I don’t have that title nor do I want it. When I first started, people said we don’t want you involved. We just want you to concentrate on the comedy and don’t worry about this and that.

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.