What I Learned From Leno

06/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For four and a half years, Jay Leno was a guy I saw at work. I was a staff artist for the entertainment news show Access Hollywood, which tapes right across the hall from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on the NBC lot in Burbank. I left that job just a few weeks ago.

When I started in 2004, I didn't consider myself much of a Leno fan. I was more of a Letterman guy but really more a fan of the old time Lettermen show; back when young Dave was on late nights after Johnny Carson with guests like...well, young Jay Leno.

I started my stay at NBC without much of a real rooting interest in late night television so it surprised me when it turned out that having Jay Leno and The Tonight Show as a neighbor was one of the best things about my years in Burbank.

First off, I met a lot of really great people who worked on the show; writers, producers, assistants, casting people and the union guys who rigged lights and unloaded band equipment first thing in the morning.

I talked to Jay himself a few times over the years, about cars, mainly. The legend is that Leno drives a different car to work almost every day but wears exactly the same outfit; jeans and a blue work shirt. Well, that's true. Like a conscientious boss, Leno would seem get to work about 8:30 every morning in one of his classic cars, wearing his outfit and with a mild case of bedhead. The cars were great - my favorite ever was a full sized, honest-to-God, old time fire engine.

If Jay Leno seems approachable on television, that's because he's actually approachable. I brought my kids to work fairly regularly and Jay would always wave and say hi. They hardly knew who he was, of course. Everyone I knew at The Tonight Show told me privately that Leno was the best boss they'd ever had. They'd never seen him freak out, get angry or have a celebrity attitude.

There's a closed circuit TV system at NBC that allows you to watch other shows in production on your office television. I'd watch the Leno rehearsals frequently, especially since the bands performing on the show would run through songs several times during the day and it was occasionally possible to catch an amazing performance that only a few dozen people would ever see.

Some of these were performers you'd expect to be great like John Fogerty or Robert Plant. Two of the unexpected standout rehearsals I saw were William Shatner covering the Pulp song Common People with Ben Folds and Joe Jackson and an impromptu version of the song "Sweet Transvestite" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show by recent HuffPost columnist with a big gay chip on his shoulder, Rob Thomas.

Aside from watching bands rehearse, I could also watch Leno rehearse bits and preview pre-taped segments. That's how Jay Leno accidentally taught me something about comedy.

Leno isn't my comedic inspiration - I like sketch stuff like Monty Python's Flying Circus or Mr. Show With Bob And David or The Upright Citizen's Brigade - but Jay is a professional who knows what he's doing. I watched him work on comedy pieces and what I learned is - cut, cut, cut.

Jay and his writers would watch segments, notepads in hand. The more consistent note I saw Leno give was to make small edits. Lose a half a second here or cut that joke there. Being able to look over Leno's shoulder for years effected me; I'm always looking for things to cut in my own comedy pieces.

I also got to watch a really interesting moment once where the "Standards And Practices" person at NBC - the company censor, in other words - was trying to kill a piece. I believe it was a segment showing stuff being sold on eBay and the item in question was two petrified frogs who were humping each other. Apparently, the sight of two freeze dried frogs having sex would be too much for the delicate sensabilities of the Tonight Show audience.

Leno didn't get angry. He seemed genuinely perplexed. He asked how Conan O'Brien was able to air the "Masturbating Bear" routines that aired about 45 minutes later. Jay told the would-be censor he wasn't mad or trying to be defensive, he just actually wanted to understand how Conan was able to sell NBC on the Masturbating Bear. After a few minutes, the S&P person seemed to give up and America was allowed to see dead frogs do it.

On his last show, Leno joked that he hoped NBC would still be around in three months. There's a long tradition of late night hosts biting the hand that feeds them but there's a sadly deeper truth there.

It's impossible for anyone that works on the NBC Burbank lot to not notice that the company seems to slowly be going out of business. It's a hundred little things - staff cuts at the commissary or the credit union being closed two days a week - but it's also big things like overtime cuts or crew being put on months long hiatus. Bits of the historic lot itself are being sold off and things are consolidating Universal City.

There was a long period where it looked like Jay Leno would be leaving NBC, too. As controversial as the Leno primetime move seems to be to some people, letting Leno go at the top of his ratings game might have a sent a death rattle through NBC-Universal especially if Jay had gone down the road to ABC or over the hill to Fox.

I don't see NBC's risk as that risky at all. Leno has been a consistent professional, easy to work with and a huge profit center. I left NBC with nothing but respect for him and the team of people he works with. Nobody can predict the future but if you look at history, Jay Leno has a long history of being underestimated.

I wish all my friends at The Tonight Show the best and hope they all end up in primetime.