In Depth

12 to Watch: Jay Leno

Anyone who thinks of Jay Leno as an amiable Boston-bred standup who just wants to tell jokes for a living needs to go back and re-read “The Late Shift.”

12 to Watch

Bill Carter’s 1994 tome revealed that while Mr. Leno really is a very nice guy, he’s also a fiercely competitive, uncommonly shrewd political player—someone who’s not afraid to hide in a closet in order to eavesdrop on a meeting about his fate.

So it should have come as no surprise to anyone to learn that Mr. Leno wasn’t going to simply fade away in 2009, the long-ago-announced year when Conan O’Brien would replace him as host of “The Tonight Show.”

Most industry insiders, however, expected that Mr. Leno would just move his act to ABC or Fox. NBC’s December announcement that Mr. Leno would headline a new 10 p.m. comedy strip came as a complete shocker.

Mr. Leno said he was intrigued by the idea of leaving NBC, but that ultimately he wanted to avoid a fight with the network that had given him so many breaks.

“It was tempting,” he said. “I know what’s out there. But at 11:30, I’m going up against everyone. I don’t want my own troops shooting me as I go out the door.”

And while Mr. Leno may be a bit of a pitbull when it comes to showbiz politics, he’s still a creature of habit.

“If I went somewhere else, I’d have to start all over,” he said. “I have a heritage here. I can call up the art department and say, ‘Hey, remember when we did that bit five years ago? You still got that prop?’ I have history I can draw on.”

Now Mr. Leno is set to make history himself, altering the face of primetime with his nightly show. If it succeeds, other networks might be tempted to consider dropping expensive scripted fare for their own stab at lower-cost programming.

But if things don’t work out, Mr. Leno said, “I don’t get depressed. The secret is to make showbiz money and try to lead a normal life. I’m real happy.”

AT A GLANCE

Name: Jay Leno

Title: Host, “The Tonight Show”

Year of birth: 1950

Place of birth: New Rochelle, N.Y.

How long in current job: 17 years in May

What to watch for: NBC says Mr. Leno’s new show will be different from “The Tonight Show,” but it will be interesting to see how far Mr. Leno strays from the format with which he’s most comfortable.

Who knew: Mr. Leno says “the best years of my career” were when he made guest appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman.”

JayLeno.jpg