With such stars as Mel Gibson, Wanda Sykes, Billy Crystal, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and, not-so-ironically, Conan O'Brien slated as guests, Jay Leno's final week hosting "The Tonight Show" in late night is set to be a momentous occasion. While his Monday-through-Friday 10 o'clock incarnation will not premiere on NBC until September, Leno was both looking back and looking ahead during a press call yesterday to talk about this new chapter in his successful career.
Asked if he's expecting to get emotional during his final week, which begins on May 25th, Leno answered, "Not really. It's kinda fun. It's a celebration. It's a good time. I've had a wonderful time doing this and I'm off the air for less time than the writers strike. Then we come back in September with something a little bit different." He added that while it may appear he's making a big move from late night to prime time, appearances might be deceptive. "It's not like we're leaving show business, or even leaving the network or we're even leaving the lot," he said. "We're just going to another studio on the other side."
One thing that helps making the transition for Leno is the fact that he's leaving while "The Tonight Show" is still sitting atop the ratings. "I'm thrilled that we've been able to remain #1 with the exception of the first year or so when we were up against Dave [Letterman]. We've been #1 since then. I'm glad we're going out at #1... we've won every sweeps period since '93 or '94 and this is the last one it was like 'Okay, good!' So when I hand it off to Conan it's like 'Here you go. I left it in the exact shape.' Kind of like when you bring a rental car back and there's no dents and you've got a full tank of gas. You're happy and you feel good about it. That's kind of where it is."
Leno also added that the legacy of hosts is not that long considering the show began in 1954. "There's only been Steve, and there was Jack Parr, there was Johnny and there was me and now it goes to Conan. There's only been five people since this show began almost 50 years ago." With Conan O' Brien taking over the desk where Leno has been since he took over for Carson in 1992, how does he feel about his predecessor? "I'm glad that it's going to Conan. It couldn't go to a better person. I mean, he's the guy. We're friends and it's a really smooth transition and I think he'll be a lot of fun."
As for what his last week in late night will contain, "We'll do some looking back shows and put together some stuff over the years and see what that looks like because that's easier than writing new stuff. [Leno laughs] The last week people don't work a lot harder. 'Oh, we've got one week left let's work as hard as we can!' Everybody's kind of partying and having a good time [but] we'll put together some fun things and I'm sure we'll do the 'Best of Jay Walking' and some stuff like that."
He also said that it wasn't too difficult to decide on who to have guest during his final week. "Everybody here knows who I like and who I'm friends with and who'd be good to have as the last guests. Booking the show is not what I do but people know Governor Schwarzenegger is a friend and he's always been a great guest. I've known Mel Gibson a long time. And it also comes down to who is available. I think Tom Cruise is doing a film or something so he's not available." He added, with his trademark chuckle, "It's not like we're having O.J. and Kevorkian!"
Leno did admit that of all the bits and parts of his late night show, "the most fun is doing the monologue. I am a nightclub performer who was lucky enough to get a TV Show. Johnny was the consummate TV performer [but] before I had this show, the fun thing to do was something would happen on the news, I'd run down to The Improv or The Comedy Store or one of the clubs and get onstage and tell that topical joke to the audience, it would get a laugh and I'd say to myself 'This is a great joke and I only got to tell it to 85 people or 200 people.' The fun thing about 'The Tonight Show,' something happens, you write the joke and run out on the stage. It's like fresh squeezed orange juice. There's the vine, here's the juicer and you get it right the same day and it's fantastic and that, to me, has been the most fun."
Thinking ahead to the new show, Leno said, "This was not a decision we went into lightly. I said, 'Can this kind of show work at 10?' I said, 'Do some research [and] if you guys think it can work, lets do it. If you don't think it can work, we'll do something else.' And all the research came back that people wanted some comedy and thought going early was a good idea so we said okay. You sort of do this on what people like. I'm not an egomaniac. It's not like this is my idea and we're going to ram it down people's throats but let's see if this is something that will work and all the research came back that people thought it would so okay we'll try it."
Though the creative team is still working on wrapping up "The Tonight Show" before diving into the new show, Leno said that they already aware of some of the areas that they will be concentrating on to ensure they'll be a good lead-in for an important show following it at 11 o'clock. "The real key to this is having a lot more comedy in the last half hour. Research and everything shows people like the monologues and headlines and the bits that we do... although my job previous to this was to give a good lead-in to Conan, the job giving a lead-in to the 11 o'clock news is really, really important. That's really where our local affiliates make their money... and I want to make sure they have a strong lead-in; that we have something that they want to stay tuned for."
Leno stressed that they also intend to improve on recent history. "There hasn't been a successful 10 o'clock launch of a dramatic series in the last five or six years. And the thing is there's plenty of drama on television. I hear people saying 'Jay Leno is taking work away from dramatic writers' but, I'll tell you something, when you look at FX and USA cable and all the others, "The Closer" and all these other shows, there's more drama now than there's every been and if people want to go there, they can go there... there's no laughs at 10 o'clock."
Whether it's late night or prime time, Leno says there is a constant that works no matter where the show airs. "I think the real key to doing these shows is the immediacy. Something happens and you can react to it. So much of television now seems to be bringing people reactions to what is happening right now." Another fairly simple element that Leno believes is vital to the show's success is the connection with the audience. "You come on at 10 o'clock at night," he said, "and you look right in the camera and you talk directly to people, we try to keep it as low tech as possible and it's just a little human contact and you try to bring a little humor before people go to bed. It's not rocket science but it's pretty simple."
That said, he didn't want to appear as though he was knocking the current dramas airing at the hour he'll be residing. "I enjoy the 10 o'clock dramas. I like 'CSI' and 'SVU' and 'Law and Order' � these are some of my favorite shows � but there really isn't any comedy at 10 o'clock. When I was a kid, there was comedy all over TV and it was fun to watch whether it was Carol Burnett or any of the sitcoms or you'd have a whole night of comedy and now everything is very serious and murder and all these procedural shows and I enjoy them but it's kind of fun to have a something a little bit different."
Finally, asked if there was a guest that he regrets never being able to interview, Leno answered, "When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of Elvis and I was a huge fan of Jack Benny. I always liked Jack Benny. I came to Hollywood, I never got a chance to meet him and then he died within a few weeks of me arriving here in town in the early-to-mid 70's and that was one of my great regrets that I never got a chance to meet him. I knew George Burns and a lot of those other guys and a lot of those legendary guys but Jack Benny to me was always a special one."
The final week of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" begins May 25 on NBC.