10 - The Michigan Daily - WUe/dtt , . - Thursday, March 28, 1996
'Nice guy'Jay Leno is finally finishing firs
By Jon Pettnski
Daily Film Editor
The kooky smile ... the loud, animated
voice ... the friendly eyes ... and, oh, that
chin. It almost just makes you want to
give Jay Leno a huge bear-hug, doesn't
Just turn on NBC any weekday night at
11:35 p.m. and you'll know what I'm
talking about. No doubt about it -"The
Tonight Show"host Leno's got that "Mr.
Nice Guy thing" goin' on.'
As Jay Leno makes his way into the
spotlight, however, people aren't quite
sure what to think of his too-good-to-be-
true image. Since taking over for the
legendary Johnny Carson in May 1992,
the comedian has certainly faced his share
of bad press and nasty rumors - con-
cerning how he got Carson'sjob, how his
domineering ex-manager Helen Kushnick
played apart in it andhow hisrelationship
with competitor Dave Letterman has
evolved alongside their battle for late-
night television audiences around the
Most recently, Jay Leno has been sur-
prising audiences all over. In September
of last year, "The Tonight Show" won the
Emmy for "Outstanding Variety, Com-
edy, or Music Series" over "Late Night
with David Letterman"; by the end of
1995, Leno was celebrating a victory
streak in a long ratings competition with
Letterman. Some of us remember back a
few years when Leno's story didn't have
such a happy ending. For the comedian,
it's certainly been a difficult climb.
Lately, people have just loved to talk
about the late-night scene. In 1994, Bill
Carter's novel "The Late Shift" described
play-by-play every detail of it; and a few
weeks ago, the book became an HBO
movie. Lo and behold, there was Leno
(played by Daniel Roebuck), front and
center, with his prosthetic chin and all.
Forthe first time, audiences got the chance
to see how Leno got his chance. But just
watch the movie ... or read about 20
pages into the book. By the beginning of
both, the Mr. Nice Guy image fades fast
from our minds; instead we see a story of
competition and manipulation among the
contenders in the late-night world.
But as always, there's more truth in
talking to the man himself. A recent tele-
phone interview with Leno answered
many of my questions about him: Nice
Guy or manipulative Competitor? The
cartoon-like, ridiculous-chinned charac-
ter on "The Late Shift" or the lovable I-
who-wanted-it-in-high-school guy we see
on "The Tonight Show?"
Who knew? After 25 minutes on the
phone with Leno, I did. He's just a
hardworking guy, finally getting what he
his teen-age years. "I always liked come-
dians in high school. There really wasn't
stand-up comedy where I grew up in New
England. There were these funny guys on
the radios ... I thought I'd do something
"A buddy of mine liked comedy and
we started to do a two man thing my first
year of college. You know,just humiliat-
ingyourselfwithawful shows." For Leno,
things just grew from there. Early on, h
worked for a Rolls Royce/Mercede
dealership in Boston; when Jay woul
have to deliver cars to New York, h
would book himself in any comedy clu
he could get into while he wa there.
How's that for perseverance?
"I always thought, I'll keep doing
until I have to get a regular job," h
admitted. "And then I never had to get
regular job so it worked out OK."
It sure did. Now Leno spends fro
8:30 a.m. until 2 a.m. at work - writin
his jokes and monologues, performin
and interviewing. What drives him? Ob
viously, his love for the work.
As Leno talked in greater detail abou
his show, he mentioned some of his
memorable interviews. "I like politi
he said. "So Colin Powell ... he was goo
... or even Jimmy Carter was a grea
guest. I mean, as someone who sort o
flunked eighth grade history, being abl
to talk to the president ofthe United State
was pretty cool."
Dare I ask about his embarrassin
moments? Yeah - I can practically se
his grin through the phone. So why not
After a few minutes, I had my answer. "
usually visit the guests before the sh
knocked on Julia Roberts' door - . a
hotel thing were you knock twice, the
you go in - and of course, she wa
completely naked. It was humiliating fo
me. But," he added, "I'm sure wors
Jay Leno looks just dapper In this nifty outfit. Where do you get your clothes, Jay?
deserves - success.
So what does Leno think of "The Late
Sho ... " His laughter echoed through the
phone before I could even finish my finely
crafted question. "I read the book, but no
... I didn't see the movie," he said. "No-
body talked to me; nobody met with me.
And I thought, gee, don't you even want
to know what I'm like?
"It's like reporting on the first seven
minutes of the Superbowl and then leav-
ing," Leno continued. "I think ifourshow
had continued to go downhill and it was
just a huge embarrassment and we got
canceled and were off the air, then I think
the movie would have had some sort of
relevance. Neither Dave or I ... it's not
like we're having sex with strange people
in the dressing room and we're doing
coke and we're out of control. Both of us
just go home, try to write jokes and do the
best shows we can."
Leno went on to detail his relationship
with rival David Letterman. And, in fact,
the way he described it tome, they weren't
rivals at all. "I like David. I think he does
a terrific show. People have this odd
mentality in America now that you're
supposed to trash talk the competition.
But to me, I don't know why two quarter-
backs (if I could just butt in for a sec ...
what's up with all the football imagery?)
or two prize-fighters - or pick whatever
metaphor you want - can't be friends."
Sounds like something good 'ol mom
would say, doesn't it?
Leno downplayed his recent jump
ahead of Letterman in the Nielsen rat-
ings, never once forgetting the time
when he still had a long climb ahead of
him."When Dave first went on we were
getting tromped ... but then we figured
out how to do it and now we're ahead,"
he said. "That'll last for a while and
then I'm sure David will be ahead.
That's just the way it goes."
Obviously, Jay Leno is negating the
"Dave vs. Jay" picture we've all had in
our heads lately. Who's winning at the
moment isn't necessarily important to
him (there has never been more than
eight-tenths of a rating point between the
shows). What matters? After hours upon
hours of writing jokes for his entire life,
His love for comedy stems back into
things have happened." Is anyone els
picturing this scenario?
It is certainly by no accident that Len
has all these experiences to speak of. He'
worked hard to get to the top. But does th
comedian want to stay? "I'd like to
don't want to move into modem'ititerpre
tive dance." Really?
None of this success has fallen int
Leno's lap; he's had some tough shoes t
fill and a very specific audienceto please
The ratings, the awards and the fan mai
all tell us he's succeeding.
"It takes awhile to make a show you
own," Leno said. "Taking over somethin
like 'The Tonight Show' ... it's like tryin
to make a left turn with the Titanic: Yo1
slowly, slowly bring it around."
Clearly, Jay Leno is steering in th
right direction, andhis shipcertainly won'
be sinking anytime soon.
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