Jay Leno‘s last week has generated plenty of press. I oughta know, I think I pounded out half of it myself.
The late night talk show host’s guests this week include Mel Gibson and Lyle Lovett (tonight), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwight Yokam (tomorrow night), Wanda Sykes and Sarah McLachlan (Wednesday), Billy Crystal and Prince (Thursday) and Conan O’Brien and James Taylor Friday).
Had a chance to chat one-on-one with Leno on the phone last week as well as participate in an NBC conference call. The good folks at Casino Rama came through with the individual request. Leno’s coming to the 5000-seat theatre there June 2 for his fifth Rama gig. Wrote about that for The Canadian Press, you can read the full column here.
Also wrote about Leno’s Tonight Show departure for MSNBC.com, where I am now a contributor. I’ve got two posts up there now on Leno, one on how he’s the hardest working man in show business and the other breaking down his Top-5 guests over his 17-year stint. (Suggestion: Read that link before voting on the TVFMF poll.)
‘Course, I also kicked a few fresh Leno quotes over to my book, Night Watch: 50 Years of Late Night Television, which is due out later this year from Praeger Press.
I’ve been asking several comedians recently about their first Tonight Show gig, especially back in the glory days with Johnny Carson. Howie Mandel and Drew Carey both talked about it as religious experiences. Carey says he dreamt about it the night before and it played out exactly that way, right down to the nod from Johnny at the end of his set.
“You could have done other shows, but that was the only show that officially put you in show business,” says Leno, who had worked The Mike Douglas Show and Merv Griffin before his Tonight Show shot. “When Johnny gave you that thumbs up, that seal of approval, that was the deal.”
Leno says he wasn’t nervous before he went on with Johnny, “but I was nervous waiting for it to come on after I did it which didn’t make any sense.”
It was Carson’s reaction to that first set that could make or break a career. “Oh yeah. There was a whole pecking order,” says Leno. “It was one of those deal where, ‘Did you do it with Johnny or a guest (host)? If you did it with Johnny, did he give you the thumb? Did he call you over? Did he shake your hand? Did he wave at you behind the curtain?’ There was all this minutia, this subculture, of where you would fit in on how your shot went.”
Leno’s first shot came on March 2, 1977. Burt Reynolds and Diana Ross were Carson’s other guests. Leno walked on, did his set, handled a heckler (rare for the Tonight Show–“It was like getting heckled in church!” says Leno) and took his bow at the end. For the record, he got waved over to the desk, shook Carson’s hand and also got The Wink. He career was made.

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