Jay Leno has been entertaining night owls for over 20 years, from his guest-hosting stints on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, to him taking over the show in 1992 with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Now he's moving up in the TV world to primetime with The Jay Leno Show, which premieres on Monday, September 14 at 10 PM ET on NBC. Leno recently held a conference call to discuss his brand new show, and here's what he had to say.
Are there any permanent - like you used to have headlines always on Mondays; - do you have anything like that where a certain thing will always be on a certain day?
Jay Leno: Well I think so. I think headlines will be on Mondays again. So the first Monday will be headlines. So we'll probably keep that tradition going. Everything else is kind of open to speculation.
I see the first week you've booked some terrific music acts, probably three nights of really strong music acts. Tell me what your philosophy is for how you're going to use music...
Jay Leno: Well, you know, these days you have, you know, when I was a kid if you wanted to see a music act you saw them on Ed Sullivan or you saw them on a specific music show and that was the only time you saw them. Now you can kind of see acts anytime you want. And what we're trying to do is put together acts that you not normally see together or don't normally perform together like you've got Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rihanna. Well that's something you might see at the Grammy's or the BET Awards. And that's what we're going to do, we're going to try and show - we'll have less music than we had on the Tonight Show but more unusual pairings of people who don't normally work together and see how that works for them.
And will they maybe fold into maybe more than one song, in other words they'll do a couple of songs or something...
Jay Leno: I don't think it'll be a couple of songs because, you know, the one sort of thing about TV is that music gives you a great studio audience, but it doesn't necessarily give you a great TV audience. And people's attention spans being what they are one song tends to kind of be it and then you leave them wanting a little bit more and then you have them back; two songs they kind of just drift away, you know.
I'm still trying to get a feel for whether on this show you almost have to do the inverse of what you did on the Tonight Show, in other words save the best for last and maybe that's not necessarily a music act because you want to give the local newscast a lead-in. So how are you approaching this and...
Jay Leno: Well that's - you're absolutely right. I mean what we're going to do is save some of the traditional stuff, Jaywalking and headlines and stuff, we'll do those as our lead-in to the 11 o'clock news. So we are going to have some stronger comedy pieces. Music will probably come somewhere in the middle and then we'll save the comedy pieces for right before the local news or at least one of the main comedy pieces, you know. We want to have comedy going into the 11 o'clock news, that's kind of important.
If you're not using a desk are you going to sit in an easy chair? I don't think you're going to do the whole show standing up are you?
Jay Leno: No we got two chairs, it'll just be a conversation area without a desk. I'm kind of glad the desk is gone actually. You know, when you take over the Tonight Show you kind of - even though you make it your own there's still certain conventions that you have to - you have to conform to so it's fun being able to change that up a little bit.
You're less than a week away here, how are you feeling now? I know you were kind of laid back going into this stuff but are you getting excited or tense at this point?
Jay Leno: I'm still pretty laid back. Like I say NBC in fourth place you can't do any worse. I mean, you know what it is, this is not as nerve-wracking as taking over from Johnny because then you were sort of an unknown entity; at this point people kind of know what you do. They either like it or they don't and, you know, you kind of bring a new - you kind of keep doing what you always did but maybe with new energy and new excitement and some new bits and you see how people like it. I mean it's - all you can do is give it your best shot, you know. And to me TV has changed and it's all about what's happening right now. I mean the shows that do well are shows like Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, the Olympics, the Super Bowl, shows that happen right now in real time. I mean the days of taping something - I can remember God even in the 90s taping like - I think I did the NAACP Awards. We taped it in like April. It didn't air until June and nobody know - who won until the show aired. But now everybody is Twittering and the audience is sending us messages - they're sending emails as the show is happening so consequently information is only good for about a day. So the idea here is that we'll tape a new fresh show every single day talking about the events that happened that day that night. And hopefully that will make it - people say oh well you can't rerun it or you can't - but, you know, nobody reruns Dancing with the Stars and nobody reruns American Idol but people just watch those kind of shows because they know it's happening exactly as they see it, you know. If you do any other kind of show even when an award show is on at a different time on the East Coast nobody on the West Coast watches it because they've all got the information from the Internet already when it airs three hours later we already know who won. So I think immediacy is the key.
Since this thing was announced you've been a punching bag a little bit for rival executives and stuff. Do you like that position? Is that comfortable for you?
Jay Leno: I mean I enjoy it and I know these guys, you know, Les Moonves was the bartender at the Improv when I worked there. And my favorite quote of Les's was 1993 - Leno beating Letterman this week was an aberration; you will not see that happen again. I can guarantee that. That one always made me laugh when I read that. So, you know what it is, it's trash talk. And if you like playing the game it's great fun. And I enjoy playing the game. I mean they all vowed none of their guests will be on our show. Okay but if the show does reasonably well and they go look we're all here to benefit television. Television is dying, it's not doing well. We either can all support one another and promote each other's shows; we can all go back into our little cave and pretend like we're the only thing on. To me I think Lost is the best show on television. I like the CSI shows, I think they're all well done. I have no problem promoting those shows on my show because it's - first of all get people the network TV, just get them there. Once they're there okay then you can argue about what's best. So to me I think it's sort of - disingenuous oh none of our people will be on there. Really? Really? I mean why don't we all just promote one another and we can all stay in business.
I noticed looking up on the show here that you're going to have comedians coming on - correspondents - and I was wondering are you thinking of taking more of an approach like The Daily Show?
Jay Leno: Well we've always had comedians as correspondents on our show. You know, the days of sort of a comic coming out, hitting their marks standing there and telling a joke not that there's anything wrong with that but we just - when you're on primetime you just want to ramp it up a little bit. I mean I love The Daily Show. I like Colbert, these guys are all great. Our stuff is more mainstream not quite as pointed. I mean, you know, it all goes back to Steve Allen, you know, people - the Jaywalking is basically a version of Steve Allen's Man on the Street; there's really nothing new in television, everybody is just kind of doing something that's been done before with their own little sort of twist on it. So I wouldn't say it's like The Daily Show but I could see how somebody could make that comparison.
Now are you nervous at all about making the leap to primetime?
Jay Leno: Well I'm hopefully optimistic. You know, I don't know what TV is anymore. I know, you know, in the old days primetime and family hour and late night these were all easily defined terms. I mean I talk to young people nowadays and they don't even know Channel 4 and Channel 7; they know Channel 147 and they know oh Burn Notice is on the USA cable and they don't - they don't see network TV as any different than cable TV, it's just another thing that's on for them. So it all depends, you know, I tend to be - I'm old school and I'm old and so I come from the oh yeah, ABC, NBC, those are the big ones and the other. But if you look I think you'll find that a lot of cable channels actually beat the networks.
What's your response to the Time headline that you're the future of television?
Jay Leno: Well that is hilarious. That shows you the trouble we are in. I mean that's - I guess it's very funny. I mean if you read the article the article is just telling you that I think television has to change. You know, it's the same way it was, you know, the advertising dollars are not there anymore. I mean the numbers that get you - that make you Number 1 now are numbers that would have gotten you canceled 20 years ago. I mean I never thought I'd see the day when primetime shows would be in single digits in the ratings. I can remember when Nancy Kerrigan hosted Saturday Night Live and only got a 14 rating and everybody went oh we thought it'd be higher than that. Well, 14, that's what makes you the biggest hit in the history of NBC these days. So, you know, it's a different model. It's a changing thing. And I think it all comes down to that people want to feel like they're seeing something live, something fresh, something that's happening right now. Like I just said before the idea of taping something six or eight weeks ahead of time, God, those days are over; that's long gone. You know, even stuff that's a day old seems stale now, you know?
I just wanted to ask about this test track and the electronic cars. Isn't the great thing about a track the roar of the cars? And these things are silent, are you going to have like zoom, zoom noises or...
Jay Leno: Well actually you do hear the screeching tires. And, you know, a lot of times when you watch racing on TV not necessarily Formula 1 because that's really loud or drag racing but most of the time you don't really hear it. But see we will have in-car cameras as well so you can hear the celebrity swearing as they hit the wall and stuff so it'll be fun.
And how long will that segment be, will that be like a six or seven minute segment or...
Jay Leno: At most I mean to do the track is about a minute. And so you want to see the celebrities, you know, it's about - I think I did it the other day in 51 seconds; that was pretty quick.
Is Jerry Seinfeld going to test this out the first show?
Jay Leno: I don't think Jerry will test it out the first show. I think it might be Drew Barrymore actually. You know surprisingly we have Justin Bell who's the world-class and world famous racecar driver and he's working with the celebrities. And I think the fun thing you'll find is the women might actually do better than the men because, A, they're lighter and second of all they take direction better. You know, guys get in there and just put their foot down and plow ahead thinking oh I'm not scared. You know, and consequently they'll overshoot the track or spin out whereas the women tend to pay a little bit more attention. So, you know, racecar driving is like sex all men think they're good at it, you know.
And I just wanted to get the logistics of it, do they get a chance to try it a few laps before...
Jay Leno: Oh yeah, they can come in and do a practice lap and Justin will take them around and kind of show them how everything works. And then - and they're free to come back at any time and see if they can do a little bit better.
I wanted to ask a little more about the correspondents; can you give me an idea of some of the pieces they might be filing and how...
Jay Leno: Oh we got Duane Perkins, African American comic, he's doing a funny - he's done a bunch of these Great White Moments in Black History. It's a funny title. And it's white moments in black history and those really made me laugh. I like those. We have Rachel Harris who has been traveling around doing bits on how to cut back and save money during the recession which is kind of funny. We have Dan Finnerty and the Dan Band; you might know them from The Hangover, the movie and Old School. And he does a thing that everything goes better with music. He just goes places with his band and introduces music to whatever situation he's involved in. And those are pretty funny. Liz Feldman is a very funny comedian and writer. She has a - kind of a nice touch. We sent her over to the senior center to teach seniors how to Twitter. And that actually turned out very cute and fun, that was funny. So that's some of the ideas of things we have.
And are they just going to be like a minute or two or are they longer?
Jay Leno: Oh no, no they're like five or six minutes. You bring them out, you go ladies and gentlemen this is Liz Feldman. Liz, tell us your background. Jay I'm a comedian and I'm going to - and what you got for us? Jay, you know, everybody's Twittering. I went to the old folks home, I wanted to teach the folks how to Twitter and explain to them what it is and how to use it. You know, and then boom you show the piece, you know.
I was wondering though all summer are you chomping to get back on TV because there was a lot of good material going by with the governor of South Carolina, the Obama speech.
Jay Leno: That's my favorite story the governor of South Carolina. You know, you know, here's my problem with the governor of South Carolina: You have manufacturing jobs going overseas. You have our computer skills and technical things going to India. There are no mistresses in the Myrtle Beach area? You can't, you know, I'm going to tell these politicians sleep America, okay? If you're going to sleep around sleep American. At least this way the flowers, the candy, it all will be - go into the US economy rather than the Argentinean economy.
Well have you getting the monologue ready or getting the material ready?
Jay Leno: Oh that's, I mean, this kind of stuff is hilarious to me. I watched this story last week of Elizabeth Edwards opening her furniture store and her first customer was her husband John. Isn't that lovely? I guess he needs some stuff for his new studio apartment. Figures if they're buying baby furniture - it was kind of a double-edged sword.
You had mentioned previously that 10 o'clock is the new 11:30. Can you explain that a little bit?
Jay Leno: Well I just find that, you know, when I was a kid - a kid - when I was in my 20s and 30s I always stayed up until 2 o'clock in the morning watching the Tomorrow Show with Tom Schneider and so did most of my friends. Nowadays I find people - and younger people - even people who work at the office, you know, they go to bed at quarter to 12, 12:30 usually the latest and consequently they don't stay up that late whether it's people carpooling or they're working two jobs or they've just go more responsibility or whatever it might be. And one thing I seem to get from people is oh I like your monologue. God, I get about halfway through - I get ten minutes into your show, I get 20 minutes into your show and either I'm putting them to sleep which is a very real possibility or it's just too late. So it just, you know, you can't go into these things like some ego-manic that people - when I left the Tonight Show it was like well what are we going to do? What do people want to see? And I said to NBC do research; if this looks like it's something people would like to do I'd like to do it. But I don't want to do it if it's, you know, just a real shot in the dark. And they said no our feedback shows that the people would like to see a show like this at 10:00. I said okay. You know, I don't have an agent, I don't have a manager. I'm not one of those guys. It's a handshake. Okay guys, you know, just - why don't you keep paying me what you paid me and we'll see what happens. Okay great. Thank you. I mean real simple. I mean that's what it is. I'm not - I don't want to own the show. I don't want to be, you know, I never wanted to be a landlord, have rental properties. I like writing jokes, going to work and telling my jokes. I don't want to be involved in any other part of it. So that's the way you keep it young and fresh you know.
Is there anything you feel like you can't do at 10 o'clock that you could do at 11:30?
Jay Leno: No I think it's pretty much the same thing. I've always been pretty good at policing myself anyway so that's never really been a problem.
How has working on this show been different than working on the Tonight Show?
Jay Leno: Well everything is brand new, you just don't know what's going to work. I mean on the Tonight Show you walked in and your lights and your sound is perfect because it's been that way and it's always been that way. What we did here is you get a brand new studio and you walk in and you stand on your mark, can you hear me? Jay, turn to your left. Can you hear me? You know, it's like Jesus, I mean, everything is - every little - every microphone, every speaker, feedback, lights, there's too many shadow - I mean you spend all your day just trying to get it to look and sound and feel right. And we did test shows and it sounded like the laughs were kind of dissipating into thin air so you hang curtains and then you put these bounce boards in the back. And there's all kinds of tricks you do to make a studio sound a little bit more alive. Some studios sound alive, some sound dead, you know, so that's what we've been doing.
If you could describe this show to viewers and critics in five words or less what do you think those words would be?
Jay Leno: Big tent show. I mean I grew up in the era of Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby and Jack Benny and these are comics that would come out and just try to be funny and entertain whoever the audience happened to be. I mean we live in an age now these niche audiences, comics that just - I just do colleges, I just do urban clubs, I just do this. Well I've always been of the theory if you're a comedian you should at least attempt to try to make everybody in the audience laugh. You're not going to get there but at least you do the best you can. And that's my thing, you try to make jokes that are accessible to everybody, that everybody can get and everybody can follow along. And that's to me is the key.
Now that you're on at 10:00 pm have you any thought to adding grizzly murders to your show?
Jay Leno: We will do what we have to do. If it doesn't work out I could be grizzly murdered by some NBC executive so there you go.
You can watch Jay Leno in primetime on The Jay Leno Show, which premieres on Monday, September 14 at 10 PM ET on NBC.