When you write about media, the real advantage (or disadvantage, perhaps) is getting to know some of the current celebrities. And my first famous "friendship" was with Jay Leno. The year was 1992, and I was employed at NBC as a research manager, where my job was to often make a failing show (and there were so many at the time) sound like a winner.
Smack in the middle of another humdrum workday (that was the pattern, unfortunately) came a call that sent my TV antennas pointing upward. Recently appointed "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno was looking for his overnight ratings, and I was the person who was handling late night. So, I graciously introduced myself, gave Jay his numbers, and embarked on what was to become a pattern of two or three phone calls per day from Jay over the next three years of my employment at NBC.
I liked Jay initially; he was polite and humble. I even recall him asking me once if my wife ever dated him. "Her name sounds familiar," he said. "I think my wife Jodi would have told me if she went out with you," I responded. Like many celebrities, it was always about Jay.
Jay was depressed when his new late-night opponent, David Letterman, was initially beating him in the ratings. Jay was exhausted because he stayed up writing his monologues half the night, according to his producer, Debbie Vickers. Jay was uncomfortable with one of his guests. Jay did not understand why the media did not always like him. Jay! Jay! Jay!
Ultimately, I exited NBC, and 20 years later I have never actually spoken to Jay Leno again, though I have seen him from a distance at various occasions. But, by dealing with him daily for three years, it comes as no surprise to me that so many people seem to dislike him. I mean, the man even called me on Thanksgiving for his overnights.
Obviously, I knew the story about how Jay got the "Tonight Show" gig. Who didn’t? And I completely understood that shipping Jay into the Monday to Friday 10 p.m. hour in the fall of 2009 for a combination of primetime talk and variety was a suicide mission. Conan O’Brien took over the "Tonight Show" hosting chair, and Jay’s colossal failure in prime time cost Conan his gig. Seriously, though, why was anyone even surprised?
Realistically, ratings for Conan hosting "Tonight" were limited because he is more suited for the later time period (perhaps the reason why his current TBS talker basically has no audience). So, sending Conan packing (prematurely according to many, but with a hefty severance package) was no big surprise. The big shocker, at least in my eyes, was Jay agreeing to return. Suddenly, the seemingly naive Mr. Nice Guy did not seem all that wonderful … or so innocent.
"NBC is a company man; he does what he is told," was one of the more common explanations why Jay was re-inheriting "The Tonight Show" chair. But many, including myself, considered this to be a cowardly move. Jay, always the "victim," was now the "villain," and his perennial best bud image — at least to the general public — was now tainted. Sometimes you just can’t go home again, and Jay returning to late night in his old role smacked of desperation on the part of both Leno and NBC.
Regardless, ratings for "The Tonight Show" rebounded; the cash-cow late-night daypart was fixed. Ka-ching! But Jay’s popularity never really did. And a "surprise" appearance this week on "Tonight" opposite his replacement, Jimmy Fallon, seemed like nothing more than a way to promote his new series, "Jay Leno’s Garage," an extension of his YouTube series. That funny guy next door no longer seems to exist.
Fortunately for NBC, Jimmy Fallon is a successful replacement for Jay Leno (who, given his still ample ratings prior to his departure, was a victim of his age). Leno is now 65; Fallon is 41. And Leno, the owner of a reported 130 cars and 93 motorcycles, could easily spend his day counting his vehicles and his cash. But Leno will never retire; he craves the spotlight, as do so many performers. And "Jay Leno’s Garage" (sheer boredom, in this critic’s opinion) is no "Tonight Show." Hopefully, though, there is someone at CNBC that Jay can call for his ratings. I am certain he is still worried about how he is doing.