Leno Excited to Face Future

Dec 9, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Now that the what-will-he-do drama is over, Jay Leno seems eager to begin the next chapter in his TV career.
In an exclusive interview with TelevisionWeek Monday night, just hours before NBC made his new deal official, Mr. Leno seemed even more relaxed and upbeat than usual. If he bore any lingering animosity toward NBC executives for handing over “The Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien, he didn’t show it. In fact, Mr. Leno seemed happy to pass the baton to Mr. O’Brien and excited about the idea of a new challenge.
He also indicated that one of his main priorities in deciding his next move was making sure he continued to work with the same people who have helped him put on “The Tonight Show” for the past 17 years. As risky as his new 10 p.m. program will be, the idea of starting all over again somewhere else seemed even less appealing, he said.
Most of all, Mr. Leno seemed pleased that he’ll be able to continue doing what he loves best: telling jokes on TV. “I’m not a retiring kind of guy,” he said.
Here’s what Mr. Leno had to say on a number of topics:
On how the deal came together:
“About a year ago, NBC came to me and said, ‘What do you think about doing five nights a week at 8 o’clock’? I said I didn’t think I had the strength to carry an 8 p.m. hour. But I asked NBC to do more research about other time periods … and they eventually came to me and said, ‘What about 10 o’clock?’ … (Ultimately), NBC made me an offer. It was fair. I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
On whether the 10 p.m. show will be a carbon copy of “The Tonight Show”:
“No. ‘The Tonight Show’ belongs to Conan O’Brien now. So the desk, the format … it will be a little bit different. It’s really based on what do people like and not like. I’ve been keeping notes for 17 years. I’m not going to suddenly start doing modern interpretive dance. I like to stand up and tell jokes.”
On the idea of jumping ship:
“It was tempting. 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 if I went somewhere else, I’d have to start all over. 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.’
“I can also get this new show on the air in September or even late August. If I left, it would be well after January (2010) before I could be on the air.”
On his relationship with Conan O’Brien:
“I do like Conan. He’s a friend of mine. In the same way I provide a strong lead-in now, I think I can do that for him at 10 o’clock. It seems logical.”
On the possibility of competing with Mr. O’Brien for guests, where Mr. Leno might have an advantage now that he’ll be in prime-time:
“We (manage bookings) now. Would I love to get Angelina Jolie first? Sure. Sometimes a guest will want to do Conan first, and we say fine, just do us 10 days later and tell a different story. That doesn’t change. And it’ll be easier than if I was somewhere else.”
On the risk of doing a prime-time show:
“This will be an interesting challenge. If this was the beginning of my career, I would have said no. Now, if I can get a few years out of it, then great.”
On his reaction to NBC’s decision to name Mr. O’Brien as his successor five years early:
“I’m an adult. When I took this show over, they said, ‘We’ll probably ask you to leave at the top of your game.’ Johnny was No. 1 when he got the nod. When I (agreed to announce Mr. O’Brien as host of ‘Tonight’) it was to avoid all of that ‘Screw you,’ ‘No, screw you.’
“The best years of my career was when I used to go on the Letterman show. When I got ‘The Tonight Show’ it strained that relationship. When Conan takes over, it’s going to be a peaceful transition. It’s not a military coup. I wasn’t forced out. It’s the nature of the business. And now I have somewhere to go.
“I don’t get depressed. The secret is to make showbiz money and try to lead a normal life. I’m real happy.”


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