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Jay Leno: Mr. Comedy

Aired February 16, 2014 - 19:00   ET




NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): America late-night leader going out on top.


BILL CARTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": A winner, that's Jay's legacy.

TURNER: The journey from comedy club kid to the throne of king Johnny.


TURNER: The rivalry

LENO: I love Letterman. He's great. Nip at my heels. Make me work harder.

TURNER: The triumph.

LENO: What the hell were you thinking?


TURNER: And the Jay you didn't know.

KEVIN EUBANKS, FORMER "TONIGHT SHOW" BAND LEADER: Probably more sensitive than people would think.

TURNER: Tonight, the blue-collar guy...

JOE MEDEIROS, FORMER HEAD WRITER, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": It's the guy in the jean shirt and the jeans. That's him.

TURNER: ... who became an entertainment giant.

"Jay Leno: Mr. Comedy."


TURNER: The man of 1,000 monologues is down to his final cue cards.

LENO: Katy Perry said when she was a young girl, she prayed to God to have huge boobs. So, atheists, your move.


TURNER: Jay Leno departs "The Tonight Show" number one, where he's been for years, admired.

BILLY CRYSTAL, ACTOR (singing): Let me say, I think your jokes are just as funny.

TURNER: By comedy cohorts.

CRYSTAL: He's been -- just he's done a tremendous job all of these years.

TURNER: And longtime friends who know another side of him.

(on camera): What is the private Jay like?

EUBANKS: Probably more sensitive than people would think. If there's somebody in the family that is suffering some bad health, he will make sure he calls, anything I can do, can I refer you to somebody, just let me know.

TURNER: A guy many say hasn't changed a bit on his rise up the comedy ranks.

LENO: Come on, you guys. Get in the picture. Here we go.

TURNER: And if he ends up on top, it's a journey that begins pretty much at the bottom.

LENO: Who was going to hang out with this guy?

BUDD FRIEDMAN, FOUNDER, THE IMPROV: The first time I met Jay was in New York City, and it was 44th Street and Ninth Avenue, where the original Improv was.

TURNER: Comedy impresario Budd Friedman knows Leno from the early '70s. Jay, then a student in Boston with dreams of breaking into comedy, drives down to New York City over and over.

FRIEDMAN: So, this young man comes up to me at the club, and he says, excuse me, Mr. Friedman, but I have been waiting three nights in a row. I come down here from Boston, where I go to school, to go on, and I never get on. What do I have to do to get on? I said, wait a minute, you drive from Boston to New York and drive back then that night when you don't get on? Right. I said, you're on next.

TURNER: Jay's an instant success.

FRIEDMAN: He did great. He became a regular like that. He was special.

LENO: Notice how all newsmen use the same metaphors?


MIKE LACEY, OWNER, COMEDY & MAGIC CLUB: They're comics that have worked hard and honed their craft, and they're great.

LENO: Another senseless killing early today.

LACEY: And there are comics that are just born hilarious, and Jay was born hilarious.

LENO: Who knew?

TURNER: 1973, Jay graduates from Emerson College and moves to Los Angeles. He performs anywhere and everywhere he can. Ultimately, he finds a home, once again at Budd Friedman's Improv, on stage in shows like this one, "Freddie Prinze and Friends."

LENO: It's always nice to stand here and try and watch people drink $5 worth of nine. You have had nine glasses, Budd. How much is that? -- $1.07.


FRIEDMAN: Oh, sure, Jay roasted me a few times, and they were pretty funny.

LENO: Such a tacky club, the Improv. Thank you very much. You have been very nice.

TURNER: With the Improv on his resume, he gets booked into another prestigious venue, L.A.'s Comedy Store.

LACEY: And he had a night, it was Jay and Robin and Pryor and Elayne Boosler and Billy Crystal and -- all in the same show. It was unbelievable.

TURNER: It's 1977. Jay's career is booming. Then he gets the call. "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" wants him.

CARSON: The young man's name is Jay Leno. And this is his first appearance on "The Tonight Show."

TURNER: That performance in front of Johnny is life-changing.

LENO: I'm originally from the United States. Any United States people here tonight?



TURNER: Big screen rolls follow like 1978's "American Hot Wax."

LENO: All of a sudden, I'm a schlump, huh?

TURNER: Comedy career on track, off stage, Leno finds love with a brunette named Mavis Nicholson.

LACEY: She's an amazingly bright and wonderful person.

MAVIS NICHOLSON, WIFE OF JAY LENO: I would say we have a great partnership.

LENO: It works out good.

TURNER: They marry in 1980, remaining together ever since. With Mavis by his side, Jay devotes his spare time to his other passion, cars.

LENO: When you work with your hands, you realize how easy it is to make a living in television.

LACEY: Jay is the guy that was, when he was in high school, he was tearing apart cars, seriously tearing apart cars.

LENO: It's fun to restore cars and fix them up.

LACEY: He's like a world-class mechanic. I studied this for years, and it's like I don't know how to turn a wrench.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our next guest is Jay Leno.

TURNER: By the mid '80s, Jay is hitting his stride.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Making some movies, doing some TV.

LACEY: He was on top. He was probably the top stand-up touring in the '80s. He was huge.

TURNER: He lands his first cable comedy special, "Jay Leno and the American Dream," and is a regular guest on "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night With David Letterman."



TURNER: It's 1985, and Leno and Letterman have no idea how often their paths will cross.

CARSON: I bid you a very heartfelt good night.

TURNER: Next: The king of comedy steps down, and the heir apparent is on his way up.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here's Jay Leno! TURNER (voice-over): August 1987, a milestone for Jay Leno. He's named permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show."

LENO: Do you believe all this trouble they're having over there in the Soviet Union?

TURNER: Subbing whenever Johnny Carson takes a break.

LENO: In fact, the Soviet Communist Party even has a new slogan: We have fallen and we can't get up.


TURNER: He's ready to take over if Carson retires, but so is another guy.

CARSON: Would you welcome Mr. David Letterman?


TURNER: Letterman's got his own show following Carson on NBC. Then in 1991 comes the inevitable announcement. The king of late- night will abdicate his throne.

CARSON: It's coming to an end next year. I have always wanted to be a shepherd.


TURNER: Carson's bombshell...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Johnny Carson has made it official.

TURNER: ... sets off speculation of his successor. Will be it Letterman or Leno?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jay is sensational, and Jay is our permanent guest host. But we have not made that announcement yet as to who the successor to Johnny will be.

TURNER: Secretly, the decision's already been made.

CARTER: Really quietly, and with nobody in the business knowing it, they had a meeting, an absolutely private meeting, with the NBC hierarchy and Jay and his manager, and they guarantied him the show. And it was a huge blowup.

CARSON: Just how pissed off are you?


LETTERMAN: Not angry at Jay Leno about this. Now, would I like to have the show? Oh, sure, yes.


CARTER: NBC also calculated that Dave was very, very hard to work with.

LETTERMAN: We have no guests on the show. We have just jerky activity, don't we?

CARTER: And he didn't play ball with them. And Jay was very accommodating. So they felt more comfortable with Jay.


CARTER: And Jay got the show.

TURNER: His "The Tonight Show" debuts May 25 of 1992, the middle of a presidential election campaign.

LENO: I mean, all we know for sure is that Ross Perot hasn't said anything, Bush hasn't done anything, and Clinton hasn't inhaled anything. That's all we know.


TURNER: Despite A-list guests, execution in the early days is an issue.

MARY MCNAMARA, TV CRITIC, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Yes, I mean, it was bumpy. He had the absolutely unlovely task of following in Johnny Carson's footsteps.

CARSON: I bid you a very heartfelt good night.


MCNAMARA: There's just no way that it was going to be, oh, and then we just move smoothly to Jay Leno.

LENO: I will give you a refund on your ticket.


CARTER: I thought he was off his game a little. I thought his -- he wasn't as confident. One of the things was, he was too far from the audience. It felt like he was separated completely from the people.

LENO: I never liked that distance of standing there with the lights in your eyes and hearing laughs, and not seeing the faces.

TURNER: With "The Tonight Show" struggling, NBC toys with replacing Leno with Letterman, but in the end decides:

WARREN LITTLEFIELD, PRESIDENT, NBC ENTERTAINMENT: The host of "The Tonight Show" will continue to be Mr. Jay Leno.


LENO: What we're celebrating is, I haven't been fired. OK, do you understand that? I already have the job. TURNER: Letterman bolts to CBS.

LETTERMAN: As I leave NBC...

TURNER: Setting up head-to-head competition against Jay.

LETTERMAN: But it will be a much better show.

TURNER: Leno tells journalists he's cool with it.

LENO: I think it will make late night interesting. Come on, this is fun for you guys, isn't it?

LETTERMAN: If you think about it, all I really did was take the summer off.


CARTER: Dave comes out and it's a sensation, an absolute sensation, and he crushes Jay, crushes him.

TURNER: Critics gush over Letterman, too.

LENO: Listen to this.

TURNER: But fans are responding to Jay, including his signature headlines bit.

MEDEIROS: It was always a high-rated segment of the show, and Jay had a great time of it.

TURNER: He has a great time with another popular segment, "Jay Walking."

MEDEIROS: We thought, OK, this is something that we could do, go out and test people's knowledge of things that are in the news, things that they should know, but maybe don't.

LENO: Who are those two people?


LENO: From "The Love Boat"?


LENO: No, no.

TURNER: Then, in the mid '90s, a pivotal moment in Jay's battle for ratings supremacy.

MCNAMARA: One of the showcase moments for Jay Leno.

LENO: Let me start with question number one.

MCNAMARA: When Hugh Grant came on in 1995. So Hugh Grant had been busted for solicitation.

EUBANKS: Everybody was watching. They were anxious about what was going to happen.

LENO: What the hell were you thinking?


EUBANKS: And he delivered the night, and I think it disarmed everybody. And it felt like, oh, we can be relaxed with this guy, talking to a person that's been busted with a prostitute, and we feel relaxed with Jay asking the questions.

HUGH GRANT, ACTOR: Well, I have never been one to blow my own trumpet, as they say. I think that it is...


TURNER (on camera): That Hugh Grant booking really did start to turn the tide.

CARTER: No doubt. Everybody said, oh, Jay's good. It was a very crucial thing for him, not just that he had Hugh Grant, but that he paid it off. He has a monstrous audience that night, Jay.

TURNER (voice-over): That night, Leno seizes number one and pretty much never looks back. As the years go by, memorable moments keep on coming, one with the future governator.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, ACTOR: And this is why he needs to be recalled.

MCNAMARA: It rocked everybody, including, I think, Leno.

SCHWARZENEGGER: And this is why I'm going to run for governor of the state of California.


MCNAMARA: And it's just like one of those really great live TV moments that, you know, don't happen all that often.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jay welcomes the president of the United States, Barack Obama.

MCNAMARA: No sitting president had ever come on a late-night show.


TURNER (on camera): Were there nerves? Was Jay nervous?

EUBANKS: Everybody was nervous, everybody.


EUBANKS: Everything was shut down. You know, it was a huge, huge deal.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me just say, I think Kevin looks good in a suit.


LENO: Thank you, sir. Thank you, sir.

TURNER: Secure on top, Leno doesn't rest on his laurels.

(on camera): Everyone I have talked about him says nobody outworks Jay Leno.

EUBANKS: No, no, not at all. I have seen that. I mean, and he loves the work.

TURNER: But, in 2004, NBC makes an unusual decision.

LENO: I want to elaborate on an announcement made earlier today.

TURNER: To promise Conan O'Brien "The Tonight Show" in 2009.

CARTER: And they have to say, OK, Jay, so we're going to extend you for five more years, but that's going to be it. Then we're going to give the show to Conan. And Jay was hurt.


LENO: I'm cleaning out my office today.

TURNER: Ever the team player, Leno goes along.

LENO: But I realize I'm not spending enough time with my cars.


LENO: No, no. But, anyway, when I took the show over, boy, there was a lot of animosity between me and Dave and who's going to get it and, quite frankly, a lot of what I -- well, good friendships were permanently damaged. And I don't want to see anybody ever have to go through that again.

TURNER: Coming up: Five years are up, but in the handoff, a fumble.




LENO: You were the only choice. You were the perfect choice.

TURNER (voice-over): May 2009, Leno hands over the reins of "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien.

LENO: Thank you, everybody. Thank you for watching. Please give Conan as much support as you have given me throughout the years.

TURNER: Publicly, the transition is positive, behind the scenes, tumultuous. NBC contractual agreement had guaranteed Conan "The Tonight Show," but the network doesn't want to lose Jay to a competitor.

CARTER: Because he's number one. Nobody takes the number one guy off the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's "The Jay Leno Show."

TURNER: NBC's solution? Give Jay a show in prime time to save the network the higher cost in producing scripted dramas and keep Leno in the fold.

CARTER: It's a sound move, but, for Jay, it was not a sound move, because he was doing something weird. It was not something the audience had ever seen before.

LENO: It's nice to be back. We have been off the air for three months, or, as most people in Hollywood call that, rehab.

TURNER: Jay's 10:00 p.m. show premieres in September of 2009.

LENO: And while we were off, the government this program to give people money for their old cars. I made $5 billion.


TURNER: Leno is back with his monologues and headline humor, but not all of his fans follow him.

(on camera): How bruising was it for Jay to have to go to 10:00 p.m.?

EUBANKS: It was kind of bruising for all of us, because we had to figure out what to do just like that. And we thought we were doing a pretty good job at 11:30.

TURNER: What do you think was the biggest challenge for him to succeed at 10:00?

MEDEIROS: Well, it was -- challenge is the word.

TURNER (voice-over): A ratings challenge for the NBC affiliates, too. Their 11:00 p.m. newscasts start taking hits from the weak lead- in.

CARTER: They were in a panic. So, by October, they were ready to remove Jay if NBC didn't.

CONAN O'BRIEN, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O'BRIEN": Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien." Thank you.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) TURNER: Meantime, Conan's ratings aren't meeting expectations.

MCNAMARA: It was a huge transition from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien. I mean, they're very -- stylistically, they're very different. Their personalities are very different. Jay was comfort food. He's macaroni and cheese. You knew what you were going to get.

CARTER: Leno had way more viewers. So they had lost the number one spot.

TURNER: In an effort to stop "The Tonight Show" viewership drop- off, NBC asked Leno if he would be willing to do half-hour show at 11:30, pushing Conan's "Tonight Show" to midnight. Jay agrees. Conan declines.

CARTER: Then it became these camps, the Jay camp, the Conan camp.

MCNAMARA: The back scenes had become front scenes. And so it just was a disaster. When that curtain between reality and perception is torn, everybody feels uncomfortable. And that's a real problem for a host.

TURNER: The uncomfortable situation resolves when NBC pays Conan and his staff $45 million to step aside. Jay resumes his role as host of "The Tonight Show" in March of 2010.

(on camera): When he came back, was he number one almost automatically?

CARTER: No. There was a hangover. And it damaged Jay.

MCNAMARA: What had happened ran absolutely counter to his brand, which is, I'm not hardball player. Well, yes, you are. And of course they are all. You have to be a hardball player to succeed in that arena.

TURNER (voice-over): Jay takes the criticism he receives over the controversy in stride.

LENO: Yes, you get beat up for a while, and you try to get your version of the story out there. And, you know, with all the serious things going on in the world, this looks like fun. Ooh, rich white people arguing. Oh, you got earthquakes and disease and rich white people arguing. That -- it gets people's minds off things. So, it's fine.

TURNER: And points out:

LENO: This was the decision NBC made. It wasn't a decision I made. You can't just snap your fingers and go, my TV show failed. I want that one. And it doesn't work that way.

TURNER: Leno now sets his sights on reclaiming the late-night ratings lead. In 14 months, he's back on top in the ratings, a position he's maintained ever since. LENO: Chelsea Handler sent him a bottle of vodka and said, you need this more than I do, OK? That's how bad it was.

TURNER: Those who have worked alongside Jay attribute his longevity and success at "The Tonight Show" to his work ethic and relatability.

MEDEIROS: He's a hardworking guy. He's the hardest working guy that I know. He was always gracious, always kind, always had time to sign an autograph. And what he shows, that regular guy aspect of him, it's the guy in the jean shirt and the jeans. That's him.

TURNER: A regular guy approach that resonates.

Now NBC is betting on another good guy to carry "The Tonight Show" torch. In a comedic duet last spring, Leno and Jimmy Fallon announced there's a new heir apparent.

JIMMY FALLON, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON" (singing): They think I can move the demo.

TURNER: And everyone is on board.

FALLON: We're still friends, right?

LENO: Yes, of course. Of course we're still friends.

TURNER: Keeping it friendly this time around seems key to both Jay and Jimmy.

MCNAMARA: Jimmy has already learned a lesson from Jay, which is nice guys can finish first.

TURNER: And after 22 years and thousands of shows, Leno is finishing as number one.

(on camera): What do you think Jay's legacy is?

CARTER: Two words: a winner. That's Jay's legacy. He, against people's expectations, always won.

MEDEIROS: If you want to succeed in life, all you have to do is go to Jay Leno university. He can take a punch. The guy can take a punch. He may go down, but he gets right back up.

TURNER (voice-over): As for what Jay will be up to next...

EUBANKS: Whatever happens with Jay, I want it to be something that he enjoys doing, something that he wants to do.

LENO: Porn done by people in their 70s and 80s. I'm 63, and I can't even keep hosting this show. What -- I'm going to Japan. I'm going to go to Japan and do porn. That's what I'm doing.


TURNER: Still drawing the laughs. It's a good bet this Mr. Comedy just may show up at a club near you.