When Joan Rivers launched her ill-fated late-night talker on Fox in 1986, her old job—permanent guest host of NBC’s The Tonight Show—became a must-get gig. By the following year, the field of contenders had narrowed to roughly a half-dozen. Among them was Jay Leno. Best known then for his appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, Leno received a phone call one day from a manager who represented some of his competitors. The manager said that if all the potential guest hosts negotiated together, they could secure $25,000 per episode to fill in. Leno responded that he would go it alone and ask for scale—$512.
A few weeks later he received a phone call telling him the job was his.
“That was an important lesson to me,” Leno says. “I never wanted to be the highest-paid guy. You tell me what it pays, and that’s what I’ll do it for. You know, has it cost me a few bucks over the years? Probably. Has it worked out for the best? Yes.”
Leno took over as host of The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson in 1992 and stepped down from the role last January. He ruled the late-night ratings for most of his run, consistently topping CBS’ Late Show and Letterman, whom Leno outmaneuvered for the Tonight Show chair two decades ago.
“Jay was always the best and the hardest- working guy out there,” says comic Larry Miller, who met Leno in 1981. At the time, Leno was “like everyone’s older brother” in the Los Angeles stand-up scene. Miller received some brotherly advice one night at the Improv after Leno overheard him poor-mouthing a recently booked gig on The Mike Douglas Show. “Jay took me aside just a minute later and said, ‘Let me tell you something. That show you’re doing, The Mike Douglas Show, is the most important show in America, because that’s the show that you’re doing. The most important show in America is the one you’re working on.’ That was great show business advice. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Leno found a level of success that few of his contemporaries achieved and sustained as long as he did. Even the nadir of Leno’s television career—his failed 2009 move to 10 p.m., his high-body count return to 11:30 p.m.—demonstrated his value. Under Conan O’Brien, appointed Leno’s successor years earlier in a deal to keep the Late Night host at NBC, Tonight fell to second place. Leno’s return brought it back to the top, where it remained; it’s now doing extremely well in the hands of new host Jimmy Fallon.
Though Leno spent most of his Tonight Show career beating Letterman in the ratings, their careers have long seemed to follow parallel tracks—especially now that Letterman is set to retire in May. Asked whether he considers himself a better stand-up or host, Leno answers with a comparison to his longtime rival.
“I think I’m a better stand-up than a host, and I think Letterman is a better host than a stand-up,” he says, adding that though he and Letterman are based on opposite coasts, he thinks the two share “a mutual admiration.” Will he appear as a guest on Late Show before Letterman leaves? “Well, we’ll see what happens.”
Leno and Letterman’s big goodbyes have been at the center of a temblor that shook late-night at not just NBC and CBS, but also ABC, Comedy Central, E!, TBS and even Netflix. Of the new generation of hosts, Fallon is “doing great” at Tonight, Leno says.
“I don’t think any TV is appointment television anymore.” But Fallon, he adds, has been smart to rebuild the show around segments meant to resonate on social media into the next day. As for Stephen Colbert, who is set to take over Letterman’s Late Show desk, “I think he’ll be a genuine threat. I think he’s good.” Then he pulls out a car analogy. “In the same way that Corvette got better when the Viper came out, I think you have a situation here where everybody has to pick up their game.”
In October, CNBC confirmed that it would be home to Leno’s first post- Tonight Show TV project—a primetime version of the comic and avid car collector’s Web series, Jay Leno’s Garage, currently being shot. The move keeps Leno in the NBC family, where he’s been since he got that call about the guest-host gig. That career-changing call came while Leno was installing a transmission on a 1969 Lamborghini Espada. At the time, Brandon Tartikoff was president of NBC, which makes Leno’s receiving the Tartikoff Legacy Award this week at NATPE that much sweeter.
Leno’s garage at the time housed 18 motorcycles and six cars. It now holds 135 cars and 92 motorcycles, a testament to his longtime passion for vehicles. While he maintains a demanding stand-up schedule, the convergence of his car hobby and his television availability suits him.
“When you work in show business, it’s subjective,” he says. “Some people think you’re funny, some people think you suck. And you know they’re both correct, because it’s personal. But when you take something that’s broken, like an engine, and you fix it, and it runs, no one can say it’s not running.”
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