The 59-year-old comedian laughed when the Time cover story was brought up during a recent conference call with critics.
“That’s hilarious,” he said of his new series being declared the Future of Television. “That shows you the trouble we are in.”
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Leno, wisely, has tried to lower expectations, crank down the hype and generally just downplay all the fuss about the launch of “The Jay Leno Show” which begins Sept. 14 at 10 p.m. on NBC. As he keeps telling anyone who will listen, “It’s just a comedy show.”
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He was relaxed, trim (he’s lost 14 pounds running four miles a day) and playful last month at the annual TV critics press tour in Los Angeles. Later, at the NBC party, he grabbed a full plate of ribs, mingled with critics and shared a moment with another veteran NBC star — Chevy Chase — who still has skid marks up his back from getting run over in his own late-night attempt in the early 1990s.
Both men have survived and stayed true to themselves in a very tough business. Asked if he was nervous about having to save the network, Leno shot back, “The network is on its own. Screw them.”
What gives him the confidence to be so flippant? Cracked Leno, “I’m rich now.”
This is true. Toward the end of his 17-year run, NBC reportedly paid Leno more than $20 million a year to host “The Tonight Show” — money he claims he’s never touched thanks to his robust touring schedule. He’s been guaranteed at least two more years to host “The Jay Leno Show.”
Don’t underestimate Leno
Leno told critics Tuesday he initially didn’t want the show to just carry his name. He favored calling it “Weeknights with Jay Leno,” so if it caught on, like “Today” or “Tonight,” “Weeknights” could become another NBC franchise. That’s Leno — always the company man, always thinking ahead.
People who underestimate him — as many did back when he went head-to-head with David Letterman in the early ‘90s — do so at their peril.
He may seem laid-back, but Leno admits he has a competitive streak, joking that he’s half Sicilian. He says things like “never believe your good reviews or your bad reviews,” but he reads both, and remembers many. He brought up on the conference call a line CBS CEO Les Moonves delivered in the mid-‘90s when Leno finally caught and beat Letterman. Moonves said then it was an “aberration.” It was not: Leno won the late-night wars for 15 straight years.
Moonves and other network rivals have been quoted recently suggesting their 10 p.m. stars, such as the leads on “CSI: Miami” or “The Mentalist,” won’t play Leno’s new NBC showcase. Leno dismissed that as “trash talk,” saying he loves shows like “Lost” (which he caught up with on DVD this summer) and held out hope ABC and CBS stars will appear on his show. (His old pal Jerry Seinfeld is the first guest Monday, with Tom Cruise Tuesday). If network TV is really in this much trouble, he suggested, “why don’t we all just promote one another and see if we can stay in business?”
NBC has invested in making whatever guests they do get feel welcome. Leno has a brand new set on Studio 11 on the same Burbank, Calif., lot where he shot “Tonight.” (His successor, Conan O'Brien, works his show from nearby Universal Studios.) Car collector Leno's cool new toy is a test track outside his studio where a celebrity — Drew Barrymore looks like the first — will race the host in electric Ford Focuses.
Leno admits he stole the idea from one of his favorite British shows, “Top Gear.” The “green” aspect of using electric cars sits well with environmentally conscious celebs like Barrymore. Audiences will love it too, insists Leno, or as he puts it. “Who doesn’t want to see celebrities hit the wall and burst into flames?”
The new show will differ from Leno’s old “Tonight” hour in other ways. There will be several comedy correspondents and they will be more diverse, says Leno. Comedian D.L. Hughley, who tested a political crossover show at CNN for a while, will file reports from Washington. Another segment will feature Dwayne Perkins on “Great White Moments in Black History.”
Leno was also big on getting more women involved in the new show. Rachael Harris (“The Hangover”) will be travelling the country offering ways of coping with the economic crisis. Comedienne and writer Liz Feldman will be heading out to seniors’ homes in an attempt to teach them to Twitter.
The bits will not be as edgy as the comedy correspondents are on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” says Leno. He realizes that mass audiences are shrinking in network TV, but the club comedian in him is still aiming at appealing to the biggest possible room. His mantra is to make comedy that is accessible and to put on a “big tent show.”
Especially in the back half of the hour, the part that leads up to the affiliates’ 11 p.m. newscasts. That’s when you’ll see familiar Leno bits like Headlines and Jaywalking. They’ll end and the news will begin without commercial interruption.
Leno will also start each show with an 11-14-minute comedy monologue, just like he did on “Tonight.” It’s all about the jokes,” he says.
Beyond that, if the show fails, Leno feels he will have given it his best shot and will have gone down swinging. If he saves NBC, or television, that works, too. He knows he doesn’t have to beat “CSI: Miami” or “The Mentalist,” just bring enough people into his “big tent” so that NBC makes money at a reduced cost.
As Leno points out, the bar has been lowered. “Numbers that would make you No. 1 today,” he says, “would get you cancelled 20 years ago.”
Bill Brioux’s “Night Watch: 50 Years of Late Night Television,” is due out this fall from Praeger Press.