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Jay Leno Talks Back: An Exclusive Interview With B&C

Seated on a couch in his Burbank studio's green room and wearing his familiar off-stage denim uniform, Jay Leno says he's happy to answer anything I want to ask. That's probably a good idea, as his relationship with the press in recent weeks has been a one-way stream of negative stories about Jay Leno the show, his ratings and local news ratings.

That comes as high-profile names such as John Wells and Barry Meyer have weighed in negatively on NBC's move to strip the show at 10 p.m., predictably representing those who long to have the hours back for scripted television. But Leno says he has no intention of backing down, and in fact is enjoying this fight. His show averaged a 1.6 rating in the 18-49 demographic in the fifth week of the season, which NBC claims keeps it profitable. And Leno says he is in it as long as NBC is, and his network has stood behind him.

Throughout an hour-long chat, an often serious and candid Leno revealed his take on the effects of the most talked-about decision in television in years. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How's the show going?

I think we're looking OK. We don't get a lot of complaints on content. The first week, people kind of went after us because it looked like the old show. Well, yeah. We seem to be doing OK, obviously going after the toughest competition in television; 10 o'clock shows are all steamrollers, and the idea is this is a show we do on a budget and we're trying to make money.

What's been the biggest adjustment so far?

There's really no big adjustment; I've been through this a number of times. I took over from Johnny [Carson], “You stink, you suck, we hate you.” Then you go along and you're great; from last January to May, I was a genius. I get it, I understand how it works. I really don't take anything too personally.

I find there's a lot of anger at NBC. But it's like I say to the people who write the dramas: If I weren't doing this, it would be Dateline five nights a week or reality shows. We've kept work in California, we have 22 WGA writers, but there's always going to be anger and resentment. The last couple of weeks I've seen some articles that are a little more, “It's not Jay's fault, its NBC's fault,” and that's OK, I get it. But when your name's on the thing, you take the hit and that's fine.

Are you surprised by the negative press coverage?

No, not surprised at all. You don't take it personally because there's really no fun in an upbeat story. The fun is, they did this and let's watch it fall. I enjoy being the underdog….Right now we've reached a level [and] we're not going below that. The numbers seem to tell us people [who] are watching the show are staying the whole hour; that's a good sign. I'm told if we can keep a 1.5 [rating], they make $300 million a year; this is what they say. So we're a little above the 1.5, we're doing OK.

This is our toughest period; we are the complete flip side of regular TV. Sweeps we'll do the worst, non-sweeps we'll do the best. When people realize that reruns are on for an extended period of time, we'll see how we do and how we pick up.

But last week you lost to reruns, and that was a story.

That's OK, that's fine. People stand there with their finger on the button; I get it. I do it in the monologue every night; something happens and I do a joke. Is it fair? No. But I need the joke. Is it fair? No. But it makes a good story.

Why do you think the media coverage has been so negative?

I don't blame anybody else; my name's on the product so I take 95% of the blame. I don't really know why. I do kind of chuckle when people compare a show you do every night to a special that's on once or twice a year on HBO. We do a 14-minute monologue five nights a week; are all the jokes going to be gems? No. But they do OK.

I'm the mainstream guy. You could go out there and be the niche guy….My thing is to balance mainstream and try to find that happy medium. Then you do something we traditionally do all the time like Headlines or Jaywalking that holds and does well, but critics say, “We've seen that.” Well sorry, it works for us; we need to do that.

Your relationship has always been very different with the critics than Letterman's. Do you think Dave is getting a relative free pass from the media regarding his current situation?

I wouldn't trade places with Dave now for anything! I don't think he's getting a free pass.

In total viewers you are averaging about the same number of viewers you did at 11:35, but getting hammered for it. Is that frustrating?

Yeah, it gets a little frustrating. You just do what you have to do to get the situation better. You just keep tweaking. The one thing about TV is the longer you're on, the longer you're on. If you get past an initial point, then you're there, and people get used to it and they fall into a certain pattern. And I think that's the real trick. I've been down this road, I did it with Johnny the first time—they're going to fire me and replace me with Dave. That was much worse; this is like a walk in the park compared to that.

Is the media trashing the decision to put your show at 10 more than the show itself?

I get a little bit of that. Plus critics seem really upset you don't have the definite opinion on politics. It seems to anger people that you don't declare yourself to be Democrat or Republican. My job is to tell jokes.

But no one is writing about your politics. So is it more your show or the decision to move it to 10?

I think it's probably the decision. To me, there is more opportunity for dramas on television now than ever. USA cable shows like Burn Notice normally would have gone on the network. Some of these other channels do significantly better, so why isn't Burn Notice on NBC if it's a hit? I don't know; there is enough work out there, so people shouldn't necessarily be mad at me for taking the 10 o'clock spot.

Last week, Warner Bros.' Barry Meyer was the latest of many to call NBC's decision a bad one. Does that weigh on you?

Yeah. So what does NBC do? If you are making buggy whips and no one is buying buggies anymore, do you keep making buggy whips? I don't know. This is an economic decision.

But you're not Jeff Zucker, or Brian Roberts in a month. You're Jay, and this is just your show. You're taking the beating for all of this.

But that's what you get paid to do. That's OK. What am I supposed to do, sit here and whine? What does the public hate more than that? Your job is to put your nose to the grindstone and try to fix it. I could complain all I want and it wouldn't change the outcome. Nobody likes a whiner. You're on until you're not on anymore. You just do the best job you can.

You're happy to take the shots in the press for this? It doesn't bother you?

I'm not happy to do it, it's my job. Grow up, people. Here's a lot of money, go out and do this. It's the way it works. I'm not protecting Jeff Zucker, nor am I hiding behind him. I could have said no. But I like being on TV and writing jokes.

Have you regretted this decision along the way?

Would I have preferred to stay at 11:30? Yeah, sure. I would have preferred that. I think it's too soon to say whether I regret anything or not….My thing is, I did The Tonight Show for 17 years, that's what I did. It's like the America's Cup; you won it, they can't take it away from you. So now you try this and you see what happens. Do I enjoy the battle? Yes, I get a certain amount of satisfaction from pounding my head against the wall.

Do you wish NBC would have done anything differently along the way outside of pulling you out of 11:35?

No, they are standing behind it, they're fine. They are treating me well. I think they are giving us all the support they can. Lead-ins are important. On the nights when we have a strong lead-in, we are competitive; on the nights we don't, it's up to us to try and carry the ball ourselves….I think people like a fighter. And if you just keep swinging, eventually people are going to get tired of hitting you. They're going to say, “We've been beating this guy up for six months, let's move on.” That's sort of the way I look at it.

Are you aware of competitors leaking negative information about your show?

Oh, yes….If something better comes along, put that on; that's the way it works. I'm not here because the 10 p.m. period was widely successful. I'm here because nothing else was working.

Is there any satisfaction in Conan's numbers trailing what you did in that slot?

No. There is nothing that kills creativity more than bitterness. You get no satisfaction from that at all. You really, really don't.

A lot of people in our industry do.

It's why I'm still in the game. You don't dwell on, “If this had only happened, or that had happened”…it really doesn't work. Conan is in the same position I was in when I took over. It takes a while; some will like it, some will leave forever and not come back.

There's a big potential ownership change coming to your company.

[Laughs] There's an ownership change here every six months. “Oh, you're the new programming guy, good to see you! OK, thank you.” Then the phone rings, “Hey Jay, I want you to meet the new guy. OK, good to see you!” I've been through nine of them!

If someone [from new ownership] comes in tomorrow and puts you back at 11:35, are you thrilled?

Oh, I don't know. Are you married? Whatever you want, honey.

You know I don't believe a word you are saying, right?

I'm not having a bad time at 10 o'clock now. I look at this as a job, and now I'm faced with a challenge, and it's a challenge I find difficult but interesting. I find that when I go to Vegas, whereas before I might not sell out, all of a sudden it's sold out. I seem to be doing better in terms of public appearances. I am reaching a wider audience. Whether that translates to television just yet, I don't know. But I see a difference.

Now why is that, because I'm in the paper every day? I don't know. Because I'm on earlier? I'm actually doing well; this is almost the best year for personal appearances since I started. So there is no negativity there.

Do you want to go back to 11:35?

If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that's what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to.

Would you rather do that than this?

I don't know….Would I take it? I guess. But it's not my decision to make; it's really not. I don't know. Something makes me think we might be OK here for a while. It depends how long you're here; by that time I could be 61-62, I don't know. Personally, I think Conan is doing fine. He's beating Dave in the demo, maybe not in the popular one right now because Dave has a lot of other things going that have people watching for whatever reason, so I think that's not really a fair thing. It's a little too early to tell.

Will the attention on Dave help him or hurt him?

I don't know. He's not being a hypocrite; Dave has never set himself up as [a model citizen]. If it were me, it would kill me. I'm the guy who's been married 29 years. But Dave has never pretended to be Mr. Moral America, he's never set himself up that way. He's not a hypocrite. I don't know how it will be viewed. He doesn't do corporate days like me, he's not as advertiser-friendly as I am. I'm the guy when Coke or Pepsi is here, I come down and shake hands and take pictures, but he doesn't do that. I don't think it will have a big effect at all.

If it happened to you, why would it kill you?

People know I've been married 29 years. My wife is a very visible person. I'm more out there. Dave is only out there when he's on his TV show. I would be much more affected by something like that.

What does your wife say about all this negative press?

It doesn't really come up….The conversations we've had about it, I could count on one hand….My favorite one is, someone on a blog said they hope I die of AIDS in one of my old cars.

You've had good affiliate relationships for a long time. What's that like now with the negative press?

I called a bunch of them last week. Unless they are the greatest actors in the world, they seem to be hanging in there and say they are in it for the long haul. I called Baltimore, Boston, the head of the affiliate board. They don't see it as dire as a lot of people are making it out to be….I think they seemed pleased that someone on at 10 o'clock is concerned about their well-being and their lead-in.

Why did you call the affiliates?

Just to get feedback.

Did the network tell you to do that?

No, I always ask to do that. That's something I did all through The Tonight Show.

So you're still feeling good about the overall affiliate relationship?

You're on until you're not on. I don't know what else you go with. I'm flattered; like ABC and CBS…none of their stars can appear on the show. What are you so afraid of if we're doing so terrible? It's all part of the game.

Has your relationship with NBC changed throughout all this?

I have the same friends I had in high school, and these [at NBC] are acquaintances. You have a business relationship; as long as you are making money for someone, you are friends. And when you're not making money for someone, you're not friends. I get it….As long I'm making money for the company, I will be here. When I'm not making money for the company, I won't be here, and I understand how that works.

So you're saying their loyalty toward you is based on how you produce for them?

I think their loyalty to me is how I've done for them in the past. They know when they come to me and ask me to do something.…I try to go above and beyond what's written on the paper.

This is the first time you've really come out and talked about all this. Does it get to the point where you just want to [walk away]?

I know this sounds really weird, but that's how you win. I look at what makes other competitors weak: alcohol, drugs, sex, instability emotionally. And I go, “OK, let me make myself strong by being the long-distance guy.” So I try to fashion myself on the fact that emotionally I can take it. Physically I tried boxing and I got the shit kicked out of me. But emotionally I can take body shots all day long and that doesn't really bother me. I realize that's where my strength is. I see other comics say, “Fuck that, I'm not going back to that club, they treated me...” [And I say], “Great, I got that one.”

That's how you do it. I see other people fall by the wayside, drugs, alcohol, too straight, too gay; whatever problem it is, I try to keep myself level-headed, and that's how you do it. If I have any strength at all in this business, it's the ability to keep going forward under tremendous pressure and under tremendous body shots, and that's where your advantage is. I know you said you didn't believe me, but I do take a certain perverse pleasure in this. See how low you can go, rock bottom, before you can keep crawling back up again.

Are you a legacy guy? Are you concerned if this is the last thing you do on television?

Here's the theory: You make show business money and you lead a normal life, and then you will be incredibly happy. I'm not a legacy guy. When I [leave] NBC, I [have] it in my contract, no stupid trade ads: “Jay, we'll miss you.” No you won't. Just let me go. My favorite thing [is that] whenever somebody dies at Disney, there's the mouse crying. The first time I saw it, I said, “Oh, that's nice.” When I saw it five times in one week, I went, “All right, can we get rid of the mouse crying?” I'm very realistic.

Are you in this for the long haul?

Yeah, I think so….I like this challenge of 10 o'clock. I find it interesting. Sometimes going against insurmountable odds and making a little progress is maybe more satisfying than going into a situation where you're going to win no matter what.

George Lopez producer Mike Gibbons said there's never even been a conversation in TV about taking the number-one show off the air before NBC pulled you off 11:35.

Yup. You got me. [Laughs] Exactly. I don't know what to tell you. I do get a sort of perverse pleasure battling windmills here.

Will you look back and be pissed off about this whole thing?

No. I couldn't be more clear than that. I don't get pissed off about these things. It's my decision; I decided to do it. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. It was my fault. You don't blame anybody else; I don't blame anybody else. Every day I meet another genius in this town whose show would have been a hit if a competing show hadn't been better….If this was 1993 and this was my first go-round in TV, it would be terribly discouraging: “Oh, I never had a chance.” But people either like you or they don't, and that's pretty much where we are.

Can you envision a time where you will say “no mas?”

I never say “no mas.” It's not my call. I've never walked away from anything in my life….This is what I do. You keep plowing ahead. If someone wants to take you out, I'm out.

Have you heard any talk anywhere from NBC that they are thinking about backtracking on this decision?

No, you'll never hear that. They'll never tell you that. What, are you kidding? It's NBC.

So they'll just call you, and you'll be off.

Welcome to Vietnam.