Leno, Jay (1950—)

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Leno, Jay (1950—)

On television, Jay Leno exudes the image of an easygoing, affable comedian. This he is, but he is also one of the hardest working men in show business. His perseverance, long hours (he claims he sleeps only four hours a night), and sheer determination have brought him to the top of the late-night talk show industry as host of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he is seen by millions of viewers every weeknight.

Born on April 28, 1950, in New Rochelle, New York, Leno grew up in the Boston suburb of Andover, Massachusetts. He graduated from high school in 1968 and from Emerson College in 1973. On March 2, 1977, he made his first television appearance as a guest on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Johnny Carson. But like many television comedians, Leno got his start traveling around the country doing standup comedy, performing no less than 250 times a year in every imaginable corner of the United States.

Persistence paid off for Leno. By the mid-1980s, he was guest-hosting many talk shows, and in September 1987, he guest-hosted The Tonight Show for the first time. Following Carson's retirement, Leno became the permanent host of The Tonight Show on May 25, 1992. His tenure as host did not begin well. On advice of his manager, Helen Kushnick, an avowed enemy of Carson, Leno failed to mention Carson's name in his first show as the new host; this omission was glaring. Kushnick also forbade Leno's guests to appear on other talk shows. Even though Kushnick had engineered Leno's rise from comedy clubs to The Tonight Show, within a few months Leno and NBC had fired the increasingly domineering Kushnick.

Since that time, the popularity of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno has increased dramatically. After 90 weeks of trailing The Late Show With David Letterman in the ratings, Leno finally won a weekly ratings war with the CBS talk show host in July 1995. By 1996 Leno was regularly winning the late night ratings wars, and by the end of the decade he was widely regarded as the king of late night talk show hosts. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno has won two Emmys.

Much publicity was made about Leno's feud with late night talk show host David Letterman. The subject was even the basis for a book and an HBO movie—The Late Shift. In the late 1970s, Letterman had served as a guest-host for The Tonight Show. In 1980, NBC gave him his own show, Late Night with David Letterman, which aired directly after Carson's The Tonight Show. When Johnny Carson retired in 1992, Letterman (and many others) expected he would replace Carson as host. Instead, the job went to Leno, thanks in large part to Leno's manager's intensive lobbying. In 1993, Letterman declined to renew his contract with NBC and moved to CBS, where he was given a show opposite Leno. The ordeal bred ill will between the two, and they reportedly have not spoken to each other since. Nonetheless, Leno still insists that he is on good terms with Letterman.

Leno's appeal as a pop icon is multifaceted. As the successor of the legendary Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, he automatically gained prestige and legitimacy. Leno is perceived as a hard worker and a perfectionist, thus endearing him to other hardworking Americans. Further endearing him to a large segment of Americans, are Leno's ordinary looks and ordinary tastes. He is not a Hollywood socialite. He is dedicated to his wife, Mavis, to whom he has been married since 1980. Renowned for his prominent chin and big, wavy hair, Leno is not a Hollywood pretty boy. Thus, when people watch him on television every night, they see a person not unlike themselves. Finally, one cannot deny the value of the time slot that Leno's The Tonight Show occupies. Virtually anyone who has a show on one of the three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) in the late night time slot (11:30 ET/10:30 CT) would have great visibility among the American television viewing public.

—Matt Kerr

Further Reading:

Carter, Bill. The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night. New York, Hyperion, 1994.

Leno, Jay, with Bill Zehme. Leading with My Chin. New York, Harper Collins, 1996.

Walker, Jay. The Leno Wit: His Life and Humor. New York, William Morrow, 1997.

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