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|Subject: Gerry slated to be a guest on Jay Leno's new show Sun Sep 13, 2009 12:00 pm|| |
Back in the driver’s seat: Jay Leno strikes out on his own
Jay Leno is 59 – and if you think that doesn’t hurt, think again.
“I thought that 59 would never come,” he admits, plopping down on a deep brown sofa in his dressing room, walls covered with a collage of drawings by kids who are fans or have appeared on the “Tonight” show.
Five years ago, when NBC told him he’d be leaving “Tonight” in 2009, that seemed like an eternity away. “I was thinking, ‘Five years, what are you talking about? It’s like 1,000 years from now,’” he says. “I’m telling myself, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ”And then the five years was up. And suddenly Leno was being replaced by a man 13 years his junior, Conan O’Brien.
Why didn’t he put up a fight, I ask Leno, who waged a notorious campaign to get the “Tonight” job in the first place?
“Well what fight are you going to put up,” he says. “I’m not going? I’m number one?” He leans his head back on the sofa and gets a faraway look in his eyes. “I’m one of those guys - when I was single I went out with girls and they said, ‘I don’t want to see you any more. I said ‘OK, great’. You can’t make a girl sleep with you. I did not say, ‘What am I doing wrong? How can I change?’ I’d say, ‘Fine, whatever you want.’ ”
It’s why he says he could never be like Paula Abdul or other stars who gripe about their employers and salaries: “That whole Paula thing just confuses me, I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.
”Still, I tell him, it had to hurt. He had to be depressed — it was only normal. He evades at first, then admits: “Not as hurt as I felt the first time when I was only doing the ‘Tonight’ show for six months and they wanted to replace me with Dave [Letterman]. That’s when you really feel hurt. ‘Geez, I just got here.’ ”
Leno pauses. “But after 17 years? I gotta say I was a little surprised that they wanted me to go when I was No. 1.” He takes a beat. “But then I remembered what I used to say NBC stood for: Never believe your contract!”
He grins that famous big-jawed smile. Then he admits, “I was in a rut.” And then he decided to fight back.
On Sept. 14, “The Jay Leno Show” will debut at 10 p.m., the first talk show to air in the lucrative time-slot that has always been reserved for expensive dramas like “E.R.” and “Lost” and “CSI: Miami”.
Jerry Seinfeld will be his first guest, followed by stars such as Jay-Z, Rihanna, Kanye West, Steve Carell, Robin Williams and Gerard Butler. Jay won’t hide behind a desk. He’ll have a half-moon table and a cast of actors in a variety troupe that includes Rachel Harris, D. L. Hughley, Mikey Day and Jim Norton, among others.
But Leno will shift his two most popular segments, “Jaywalking” and “Headlines,” to the end of the show, to hang onto the audience for the local news that follows. Says one veteran talk show producer: "It’s imperative that he bring the audience to the local news or the station managers will demand that NBC shut him down.”
All this has re-energized Leno: He runs four miles a day and he’s cut out the donuts he ate every night – he’s lost 14 pounds.
He’s been practicing his routines Sunday nights at one of his favorite haunts - The Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif. - as well as traveling to the Mirage in Las Vegas, where he can make $150,000 a night or more.
Interestingly, Leno reveals that he rejected some of NBC's early ideas for a show.
“I don’t know if NBC got nervous,” he says about the rumors that he was being courted by ABC, “but they said, ‘What could we do to keep you here?’ They suggested a half-hour strip every night at 8 p.m. and I said, ‘Nobody wants to watch a 59-year-old white guy.’ Then I started thinking about 10 p.m.”
Leno says he researched the time-slot. “There has not been a successful launch of a 10 p.m. show in years, and they are all crime dramas," he says. So I suggested to Jeff Zucker, ‘How about doing a comedy show at 10?’”
Zucker, President and CEO of NBC-Universal, agreed, knowing it was cheaper to spend $2 million a week on Leno than $15 million on a drama.
The writers of those scripted dramas lashed out against Leno. And that still rankles.
"I saw how all those drama writers went after me,” he says, “like I was somehow responsible for putting people out of work. The dramas weren’t working anymore. I am sorry, guys, but that is not my fault.”
The one person Leno never gets mad at for any backlash is CBS’ CEO, Leslie Moonves. “He was at bartender at the Improv when we started out,” Leno explains. “He’s a great guy.”
So is Leno. But will that be enough to make his show a hit?
It’s a gamble,” he admits. “It’s a big risk. But my wife reminded me that I work best with my back against the wall.” He grins again. “I enjoy being the underdog.”
THE JAY LENO SHOW
Weeknights, 10 p.m., NBC