NBC and Jeff Zucker deserve hazing. In 1775, we would have tarred and feathered them. But cut Jay some slack.
Jay didn't feather his 10 o'clock bed -- Jeff Zucker and the peacock did. I don't want talk at 10. I want comedy, drama or variety (like the old Carol Burnett show) at 10. So does most of America.
Jay Leno at 10 p.m. was Zucker's idea. In 2004, Zucker and NBC decided Jay should retire in 2009, so they wouldn't lose Conan O'Brien to Fox.
In the spring of 2009, the "not yet ready to retire" Jay graciously surrendered his throne to Conan. He was willing to give 10 p.m. a shot.
When Johnny Carson retired it was his idea, not NBC's. So why is anyone surprised that Jay would want his time slot back, when it was never his choice to "retire" in 2009?
When Jay was Johnny's guest host once a week, I was pursuing stand up comedy, and I sold him a few jokes. We never met, but we had a couple of interactions.
Before the '92 election, I submitted a joke about Pat Buchanan: "Pat Buchanan has a cure for poverty -- he wants to place a box tax on the homeless." I was thrilled when I heard Jay deliver that joke. Just hearing a comedian you admire deliver your joke is a gift in itself.
But then I didn't get paid, and I did want the money too. So I faxed the number where I submitted jokes (back before email). I re-faxed the submission that included the box tax joke and asked to be paid for it. in less than 24 hours, Jay Leno called my home and left a message on my answering machine. He apologized and said he writes and sees so many jokes that he thought he had written the joke in question.
All I expected was to get a check for $50. Jay didn't have to call and apologize, but he did -- because it was the right thing to do. And as a baby stand up comic at the time, I really appreciated it. I still have the answering machine tape. I saved it because Jay sounded like such a nice, decent guy.
I never reached the status of faxing jokes directly to Jay's home (i.e., I was lower on the food chain . . . just above plankton), so the personal touch really meant something.
My last contact with Jay's office was shortly before he ascended the Tonight Show throne. I had submitted some jokes and included a funny story I heard in church. Pastor Tony Campolo was trying to motivate parishioners in Philadelphia to get out and vote, when a little old lady stood up and said: "If God had wanted me to vote, he would have given us candidates."
Jay began making the rounds on talk shows as the heir apparent to Carson. In almost every appearance, his election year observation was that "if God had wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates." Suddenly, I worried: What's the penalty for stealing jokes in church?
I didn't want $50 for myself -- it wasn't my line, but I worried that the Big Guy -- God, might be mad at me. I got in touch with Jay's office, explained my fears -- worried that I'd stolen a joke in church. I asked if Jay would make a $50 contribution to Tony Campolo's ministry. He did.
Jay Leno is a nice guy. He's not stealing Conan's job any more than Conan snatched Jay's job back in 2004.
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