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Jay Leno: ‘Oldest Quarterback' Happy to Work Harder Than Ever

Jay Leno met a roundtable of journalists in the morning
of Aug. 19 in the cozy, luxurious new green room that will welcome guests on the
primetime comedy show he's launching Sept. 14 on NBC. It's appointed perfectly,
with squishy, earth-toned couches that feel lived in, stylish lamps and
just-right sculptures on the tables.

But the day before, there was actually nothing at all in
that room--no furniture, no pretty art. Just exposed wires, according to the
network publicity exec in charge of the visit, Tracy St. Pierre.

It is a tangible reminder of just how blink-of-an-eye
quickly things have to move in TV today. Perhaps more so with this show than in
any other case. It represents one of the boldest programming decisions about
primetime in years. NBC, of course, lingering in fourth place among the
broadcast networks, announced earlier this year that it would strip the show at
10 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and shift all other primetime programming to the 8 and 9
o'clock hours in an effort to shore up resources and viewers. While NBC execs
have reiterated that the show's success will be evaluated with a longview, the point of
this exercise is to inject some immediate, much-needed success into the

However, Leno says he hopes the network doesn't get too
eager to call a win. "I hope when we come on we do well. I hope I'm not declared
the 'King of Primetime,'" he says, jabbing NBC's press release crowning Conan
O'Brien the King of Late Night perhaps prematurely. "Let's just let it go, see what

Much like Leno indicated during the TCA press tour
earlier this month, he does not appear to be sweating the responsibility for
turning things around at NBC. When asked whether he's feeling the pressure: "No!
They're in fourth place. What happens now? No, it's not my fault; I was happy
where I was," he says, in one of a couple allusions to NBC's decision to have
him retire from The Tonight Show
in the first place. "I just work here."

While he is one to study the ratings to find what is
working and what's not, he says ironically, "I have no idea how it works. I
really don't."

"You know you're not doing well when they ask you to
leave," he says. Then, with another bit about getting bumped from The Tonight Show, "Sometimes, when you're
No. 1, they ask you to leave."

Regardless of how this primetime experiment works out,
Leno says he expects to be remembered for taking on Tonight as the top-rated show and handing
it off in the same shape. "If it's successful, that's nice. If it's not and
people ask, 'Did you do anything after the Tonight Show?' No, no," he says, adding he's
just happy to be working. "I'm 59. I'm the world's oldest quarterback. I'm happy
just to play the game."

Leno in his later years stands to work harder than ever.
The new show will in fact be "a lot more work" than his gig of the last 17
years, he says. It's the equivalent of doing three Tonight Shows worth of comedy a night, he

To pull it off, he has a "few more writers" than he
used in late-night, which is a point he sees as a bit of a no-good-deed
scenario. He says he doesn't get the frustration in the TV industry concerning the fact that his comedy show--not scripted dramas--will air
across the board at 10.

"We have 22 [Writers Guild of America] writers. If we didn't do this, you'd have
Dateline as a five-night strip.
There are more scripted dramas now than at any other point in history," he says.
"This is a situation where it wasn't working (on NBC) at 10

He is particularly perplexed when people take shots at
him personally for the endeavor. "I don't quite get it. Then they go after me.
If I didn't do it, somebody else would. You'd have five nights of Biggest Loser," he says. "At least we have
union people working on this program. It's a union show. I don't know how many
writers a drama series uses. I'd be surprised if it's


Like the day-and-date late-night talk shows, Leno's new
comedy show will emphasize immediacy, perhaps even more. "That's where the
future of television seems to be," he says. "It's happening right now, we want
to see it right now."

The show will tape at 4 p.m. PT each day and the
production is not likely to bank any episodes, possibly not even at
Thanksgiving, Leno says. The first thing he says about the format is that it is
a comedy. The second: It features a lot of correspondents. He calls them "a
really diverse group that looks like America."

That group includes women, African Americans and some
comics from the Mideast. "There's so
much anger in the world," Leno says. "I want to see what makes people laugh, what they think
is funny." Noting that the best comedy is universal, he recalls watching a
Korean comedy competition recently in which he didn't know what they were
saying. It was a handsome man and a short, heavy guy doing a classic comedy duo.
"It was hilarious," he says.

Comedians on the show will do some standup, but Leno is
also counting on them to go out in the field and do bits there. Leno says he is
hoping to mix things up and expose young comedians in a new way on the show. "I
hope we can make stars with this and people get offered shows," Leno

Among the field pieces in the works, contributor Mikey
Day is taping faux TMZ-style
segments in which he follows celebs with a fake paparazzi crew. Correspondent
Liz Feldman went to an old folks' home to teach the people all about Twitter.
Other contributors who have been announced include Rachel Harris, D.L. Hughley,
NBC News' Brian Williams.

Standup will take somewhere between eight and thirteen
minutes, like it did on The Tonight
fluctuating in time and tone based on the news of the day, Leno
says: "When times are bad, you do silly jokes. When times are silly you can do
more serious jokes."

The show will open with the monologue, which Leno says
takes five to six hours to prepare; toss to comedy with the correspondents;
include time with one, maybe two celeb guests; the new "10 at 10" feature,
during which newsmakers are asked ten questions about topics of the day; and
close with the signature segments like "Jay-Walking" and "Headlines." He'll then
toss directly into local news.

He is playing with new signature segments a la
"Headlines." Among them: the staff is looking at Facebook. "Do people's Facebook
photos really look like that?" he says.

Leno will also incorporate trips to the previously
announced eco-friendly race track being built right outside the stage a few times a
week, and musical acts will be part of the show, probably a couple times per week.
Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rihanna already have been announced as musical guests.
Leno aims to continue pairing artists in unusual ways. Prince is likely to be
paired up with somebody, he says.

The Good Old

Longtime Leno pal Jerry Seinfeld was previously
announced as the first episode's guest. When asked who else is booked and how
hard it is to line people up, he says "it's hard to get people to do anything.
It's hilarious." And the booking wars have been ongoing since the beginning of

The show planned a publicist party for the night of Aug.
19 to help drum up goodwill with potential guests, he says, and he offers his
"favorite" story about booking guests on The
Tonight Show
. It's a tale he tells the group gathered on couches
around him with great animation. It's about ice skater Katarina Witt. "This
woman hasn't been seen in years," he says. "Then she's naked in

He gets a call from Playboy asking if he'd like to have
Witt on the show to talk about the photo spread, he says. He accepts, she
arrives, "and I say, ‘Hello, how are you? Congratulations on the photo shoot,'"
he says, then leans and whispers, "The publicist says to me, ‘We are not going
to discuss the Playboy stuff.'"

Leno says his response was, "OK. Why don't you ... take
your client ... and go home."

"You're naked! You called me because you're naked!" he
says. "It's the only reason you're here!"

Leno says he will jump in to help make calls about
booking guests when needed, but doing so hasn't always led to the best result.
Consider his attempts to invite Kathie Lee Gifford following her sweatshop

He had been "mercilessly joking about" Kathie Lee's
situation. "We tried to get her on the show, and they said she won't come. ‘You have to make the call, Jay,'" he recalls.

So he said to one of the assistants, "Will you get me
Kathie Lee's phone number?"

He called the number and said, "Is this Kathie Lee?"


"It's Jay Leno."

"Hi Jay."

He proceeds to say he knows they've made some jokes but
invites her onto the show anyway and she agrees. He says the bookers will

"I walk into the conference room. Done! Booked!" Leno
says. "They go, ‘Jay who did you call? Who
did you call?
We just called Kathie Lee and she said,

He asked the assistant, "Whose number did you give me?"

The assistant: "Cathy Lee ... Crosby."

"'Cathy Lee Crosby! She hasn't done anything since
That's Incredible!' I had to call
Cathy Lee Crosby back and say it was a mistake," Leno says. "I felt

As for promoting his own show, Leno appeared on Tavis Smiley and plans to tape Bill Maher Aug. 21. "That's it, we've got
to work on the show," he says.

He says he has no plans to appear on The Tonight Show and would certainly not
go on any other late-night show. "I wouldn't do that to Conan. Everything is
taken as a slight no matter what," he says.

He adds that he thinks Conan O'Brien is doing "fine" as
the new host of The Tonight Show.
"Conan's going through the exact thing I went through. I remember I'd been on
for like three weeks, then we were off for the Olympics," Leno says, recalling
Washington Post writer Tom Shales immediately skewering him. "Shales was like,
'Leno's off! Don't come back!' Everybody goes through that. It's a rite of


In addition to telling tales of the old days, Leno takes
the group on a tour of the in-progress new set. It's bigger than The Tonight Show set but will seat around
the same number of audience-members, about 400. The stage, No. 11 at NBC
Universal's Burbank facility, will allow Leno to tape "an
hour show in an hour," with all the space needed for the show right there.

He says he likes staying in Burbank because there are
no execs within across-the-hall distance. "They have to get in their cars and
drive" from Universal City. And that's a place he wants nothing
to do with. "I don't want to go to an amusement park," adding the concept of
building a "fake city" because the city itself is too dangerous is

The race track for the "Green Car Challenge" has not
been built, but it's due to be right out the door from the set. Celebs may take a
crack at the track while appearing as guests or drop in just to drive. They'll
be racing a Ford Focus that has been converted from a real race car to an
electric vehicle. The cars can be parked on the stage, which is something the
automotive enthusiast hasn't been able to do with regular gas-fueled cars in the
past, due to fire hazards.

It's product placement "that's not too in your face,"
Leno says. Being green, the cars also keep the show out of the way of any
criticism about fuel-guzzling and pollution.

In the end, Leno says he's simply hoping to keep things easygoing and light in
general. "I'm just trying to give you a laugh before you go to bed," he says.
"We're not trying to revolutionize the world."