As I watched Jay Leno say goodbye on his final Tonight Show, I started thinking about all of my experiences with Jay, the stars on his show, the various wild animals roaming the halls and his incredible staff. You see, for a good part of my 12 years as host and correspondent on Access Hollywood, my dressing room was in the same hallway as The Tonight Show.
In fact, there were actually two main hallways, one on each floor. I was on the second floor. The musical guest of the night had the dressing room at the top of the stairs, mine was down the hall. It never ceased to amaze me what famous singer or band I'd run into, sometimes literally, at the top of the stairs as I headed down to our studio to shoot our show. Once, I nearly took out Prince. The things I have seen, heard and smelled coming out of that room remain a cornucopia of the times for me. Snoop. The Cure. Keith Urban. Rihanna. Slash from Velvet Revolver. John Mellencamp. Too many to count.
We shot Access Hollywood in Johnny Carson's old Tonight Show studio. In fact, we even kept the star on the floor where Johnny would come out and deliver his monologue every night. (A monologue to roughly 15 million people -- 15 million!!)
Jay shot his Tonight Show across the hallway from Johnny's old studio. That ground-floor hallway was always a beehive of activity. Producers, writers and incredibly talented people in audio, lighting, make-up, wardrobe, grips and more racing about. Then you add into the mix of stars on the show that night, their handlers plus a wild animal or two, and you can see how that hallway -- maybe five to six feet wide -- was like an artery on a busy freeway. The doors leading to the stage were smack dab in the middle of the hallway, leading to more congestion. I've run into everyone from Tom Cruise, who was saying hello to every single person, including an NBC Page, to an NBC president by the name of Scott Sassa, who chased after, found and closed the door to talk to Jimmy Fallon way back in the day. It's actually how we got to this point, nearly a decade later, of Fallon taking over The Tonight Show. I wrote about it here.
But even though I've seen United States presidents walking the hallways, movie stars and television stars, there was one other thing I always saw that I thought was pretty cool and it sticks with me to this day. The smiles. Sure, doing a show like The Tonight Show is tough, demanding and stressful. But, nearly every Tonight Show person I met over the years I liked and found to be friendly, funny and nice. Even the red-haired lady who had something to do with numbers and money was nice. Those people are never nice.
My point is, and Jay made the same point last night, is that you felt those who worked on the show were one big family. Jay was incredibly loyal to them and they to him. In fact, I can remember when Jay was going to leave the first time and I ran into some of the Tonight Show staff in the commissary. I'd come to know a good number of them fairly well by this point. There was a lot of worry at the time. Most of them were going to lose a job they loved. Plus, the economy was in the tank. But, one of staffers told me Jay held a private meeting with the staff and told them he was going to do everything he could to help them keep their jobs on the lot in some capacity. Turns out, they just went with him to his short-lived 10 p.m. show and then back to The Tonight Show.
I had a number of interactions with Jay over the years. I sensed he always found our show amusing. He'd always have some sort of wiseacre comment about some silly or insane thing we were covering. And he was usually right. Truth is in the humor. But, he was always nice. I gave him crap a number of times about brown-bagging it on his private jet he'd jump on after the show to head to Vegas for a quick gig that night. What? No chef to whip up a meal on your private jet? He had me on a couple of his shows, in the opening of the show, playing myself. Once in a Michael Jackson skit and once with Kim Kardashian. When I did those bits it was a blast because I got to work with his great producers and camera crews.
Much has been made of Jay's workaholic lifestyle. I think it's pretty simple. I feel it benefitted Jay and the show greatly. It allowed Jay to do the kind of comedy he could not do on The Tonight Show while getting a feel where the country was at any given moment. You can't get that behind guarded gates in Beverly Hills. I always likened Jay's Tonight Show to the Olive Garden, the mid-scale restaurant chain. It has that all-you-can-eat salad bowl, some above average dishes, and a surprise special every now and then all packaged in a nice, friendly setting. Comfortable. Digestible by the middle of the country. Not risky like the new, foie gras-servin' hot restaurant down the street which may be gone in a year. Jay Leno, the comedian on Sunday nights at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach was a little different and riskier than Tonight Show Jay. But what wasn't different was his ability to make everybody feel good. Just be nice to people. To care about them. At the club. At the studio. On the street after the show.
There is one hitch in all the love for Jay and it is his perceived handling of when he left The Tonight Show the first time and how many believe he firebombed any chance Conan O'Brien had of finding success as the new holder of the show's flame.
I have my own, somewhat inside view. Remember, I was at Access Hollywood at the time, both in 2004 when it was announced that Jay would be fired five years later (WTF?, I thought at the time) and when it actually happened in 2009. I knew people in all three camps; Leno, Conan and the network.
Let's start with this.
There is a saying in the industry that you never follow a legend. You follow the guy who follows the legend. That's because the guy who follows the legend usually gets hammered, not only in the ratings, but in the press as well. It usually ends badly for the new guy. This is because the legend usually exits kicking and screaming and scorches the earth, leaving nothing that can grow in the legend's absence, most of all ratings and goodwill. That's Jay Leno Is Fired: Part One. Imagine knowing for five years that you are going to be fired, even though there is nobody in the country who is better than you. You are number one, yet, you need to be replaced. That has to burn for five years. So, when it finally happens, there is an incredible amount of buildup -- anger, frustration and loss.
When Johnny Carson said goodbye to The Tonight Show and cleanly handed it off to Jay Leno, Carson was done. It had been a sensational 30-year run. Carson was 66 when he passed the torch to Leno. He didn't throw it at him and light Leno on fire. He didn't run around the studio and the media lighting everything on fire, burning it to the ground. Scorching the earth as it were. Carson said goodbye in a way that kept -- what I assume Carson knew was the only thing bigger than him -- The Tonight Show in tact, polished, tuned-up and ready for the new driver.
But, what if Johnny had suddenly decided to do a 10 p.m. show on the very same network, just as Jay was getting his footing hosting The Tonight Show? Carson would have cut Leno's show business legs out from under him. Carson would have damaged The Tonight Show and buried Leno. It would have been a disaster.
That's the one caveat in the career of Leno. He not only broke Conan's legs, he tied one of Conan's arms behind his back. By the way, I never thought Conan was the right choice. Did he deserve a shot? Sure. Was he the right fit? Never. Just like Ann Curry hosting the Today show. She deserved it. Great person. Just the wrong skill set to host a morning show. Jimmy Fallon. Right guy. Right skill set. Will do well.
Other than the Leno-Conan fiasco, Leno was brilliant at finding the right balance hosting The Tonight Show. He revered it and it's place in the history of television and in the lives of millions of Americans. He was a good driver. He took care of the show, it's guests and it's staff incredibly well. It always put a smile on his face.
As Leno emotionally said when he closed out the last few minutes of his final Tonight Show, "I'll tell ya' something. The first year of the show, I lost my mom. Second year, I lost my dad. Then my brother died. And, after that, I was pretty much out of family. And the folks here became my family." Leno is saying goodbye to the only family he has.
I leave you with one of the thousands of images I have of seeing Jay during my 12 years on the NBC lot. Funny enough, it's a time when I saw him away from The Tonight Show. And he scared the hell out of me.
My parking spot was directly across from Jay. I would turn right into my spot and he would turn left into his. I loved driving in everyday, wondering what amazing car Jay would have parked in his spot. In fact, I would often take pictures of his car and email them to my dad, also a car buff.
On this particular sunny Thursday, I finished shooting our show around 5:30 p.m. and left the studio to head up Buena Vista Street to stop at Lowe's. I'm at a stop light. It's a two-lane road each way. I'm in the right lane. I have my music pretty loud, windows closed. Suddenly, my SUV starts to vibrate slightly. Within seconds, the vibration continues to grow and grow. I turn off my music. There is an insanely loud rumble like a train is coming and my car is vibrating so much it is almost rocking. It alarms me.
"Holy Moly! It's an earthquake!" I think.
I look for light poles, telephone poles and trees to see if they're swaying. It's what you do when you feel movement, hear a train-like rumble and live in California. However, nothing is swaying. By the way, this all happens in about 20 unsettling seconds. I'm confused. Then light turns green and the rumble grows louder and the vibration increases.
I'm looking around to see if I can go as the cars in front of me take off slowly. The lane to my left is going faster than my lane. Cars are passing me.
Then I see it.
It is Jay Leno.
He is in an open-cockpit, huge car that has an airplane engine. Yes, an airplane engine. Now, I've seen this incredible car in his parking spot but have never heard it running. Jay drives past me wearing old-school driving goggles and a scarf wrapped around his neck. The scarf is flowing in the wind. Jay is smiling. People are smiling and waving at Jay. Jay is waving back. I watch him drive away into the golden California sunset. Happy, with a huge smile on his face and firmly in the driver's seat.