Also Credited As:James Douglas Muir Leno
|James Douglas Muir Leno on April 28, 1950 in New Rochelle, New York, USA|
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Born James Douglas Muir Leno in New Rochelle, NY on April 28, 1950, he was the son of Scotch and Italian parents, who raised him in Andover, MA. Leno's school years were difficult ones. A born class clown, he was reportedly encouraged by a guidance counselor to drop out of high school, but he persevered, eventually receiving not only his high school diploma but a bachelor's degree in speech therapy from Emerson College in Boston. Leno began his career as an East Coast stand-up in the late 1970s, and quickly gained a following for his smart, observational humor. Current events were among his regular targets, but Leno's keenest comments focused on the absurdities of commonplace events: workplace bureaucracy, advertising doublespeak, and the eccentricities of the average person, all of which would remain the backbone of his material on "The Tonight Show." In conversation with friends and colleagues, Leno would frequently state that taking over "The Tonight Show" from Johnny Carson was among his fondest wishes.
Ceaseless nightclub appearances led to greater exposure for Leno; first as the opening act for top musical performers like John Denver and Tom Jones, and later on television talk shows and variety specials. He earned his first appearance on Carson's couch in 1977 and would return frequently over the next decade before eventually becoming his permanent substitute guest host in 1987. Prior to that, he was the star of several primetime comedy specials, starting in 1979 with, appropriately enough, "The Jay Leno Special" (TK). Leno also dabbled in acting throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with minor guest appearances on series like "Good Times" (CBS, 1974-79) and "Laverne and Shirley" (ABC, 1976-1983). He later graduated to minor roles, often oafish ones which played up his height and working class accent, in such films as "American Hot Wax" (1978), "Silver Bears" (1978) and "Americathon" (1979). He landed the lead once in a forgettable culture clash comedy called "Collision Course" (1989), in which he played a rough-hewn Detroit detective who teamed with Pat Morita's Japanese cop to recover stolen technology. In interviews and on "The Tonight Show," Leno occasionally poked good-natured fun at his early career in the movies.
After taking over the permanent guest host position on "The Tonight Show" from Joan Rivers in 1987, Leno was handpicked by Carson to replace him as the host of the venerable program after his retirement in 1992. The news pushed Leno to the forefront of media scrutiny, which he bore with typically affable good humor. However, the road to Carson's seat had been a difficult one; Leno and friend David Letterman, who had also risen from the stand-up ranks and aspired to land the "Tonight Show" slot, had engaged via their representatives in a power struggle that had turned vicious thanks to machinations by Leno's manager, Helen Kushnick. Her efforts eventually landed Leno the job, but not without considerable anxiety on his part and total devastation for Letterman, who later abandoned NBC for greener pastures on CBS. Leno would later remove Kushnick as his manager and executive producer of "The Tonight Show" after just three months in the latter position. The entire debacle was later the subject of "The Late Shift," a book by Bill Carter, which became a TV movie for HBO in 1996. Actor Daniel Roebuck played Leno under considerable prosthetic makeup that appeared to parody the comic's prominent lower jaw.
Leno's early tenure on "The Tonight Show" was also fraught with challenges. Two generations had closed out their evenings with Carson, and though likable and amusing, Leno was simply not Carson to many viewers. To make matters worse, Letterman's new program, "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993- ), was trumping him in both ratings and critical respect, with many journalists and even other comics skewering Leno for taking a softer, middle-of-the-road approach with his monologues and material. Leno responded by adding irreverent sketches and segments to the program, much of which took the same tack as his stand-up act; "Headlines" focused on bizarre misprints and advertising from newspapers, while "Jaywalking" sent Leno out onto the streets of Burbank to quiz passers-by on simple news and historical items. Though the bits echoed much of what Letterman had been doing on his show for years (which, in itself, was borrowed from Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs), it had a positive effect on ratings, which began to climb steadily over the next few years. Eventually, "The Tonight Show" surpassed "The Late Show" in the late night wars, with most media observers citing the 1995 show in which Hugh Grant made his first appearance after being arrested for soliciting a prostitute as the turning point for Leno, who asked the actor the million dollar question: "What were you thinking?"
With "The Tonight Show" resting comfortably atop the talk show heap, Leno was free to pursue other interests. He remained exceptionally active as a stand-up comic, and cultivated a massive and museum-worth collection of antique cars and motorcycles, several of which he auctioned for astronomical sums to support charities. He was also frequently called upon to contribute cameos as himself to numerous television programs and features. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he regularly lent his immediately identifiable voice to a variety of animated projects; most notably "Robots" (2005) and "Ice Age 2: The Meltdown" (2006). The period was also marked by a flurry of nominations for his work on "The Tonight Show," which culminated with a 1995 Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series and a 2006 People's Choice Award for Favorite Late Night Talk Show Host.
Despite the hard-won respect, Leno was still the target of pundits and critics, who continued to cite his easygoing approach as flaccid when compared to Letterman or newcomers like Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. He also found himself twice at the center of considerable controversy in the early 2000s. The first was in 2005, when he was called to testify in defense of Michael Jackson during his trial for alleged child molestation. Leno was initially issued a gag order by the court which prevented him from telling any jokes about the trial in his monologue; he neatly sidestepped the restriction by delegating the material to guest comedians who delivered the gags for him. NBC eventually challenged the order and had it lifted. In 2007, Leno received some of the most brutal brickbats of his career when it was announced that he had written some of his own monologues during the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike. He and NBC both issued statements that they were granted special permission to do so after private meetings with the Writer's Guild; however, the union countered by stating that no such arrangement was ever reached. Leno's detractors flogged the item in the press as proof positive of his creative bankruptcy.
Leno's contract with "The Tonight Show" was slated until 2009, after which it was widely speculated that NBC would replace him with another host. In 2008, the rumors became reality when NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker announced that Conan O'Brien would take over for Leno as the show's host in May 2009. Initially, Leno appeared to agree with the decision, citing the strife between himself and David Letterman after Carson's retirement as a key factor. Later, however, he appeared to reconsider his retirement, despite Zucker's confirmation that O'Brien would earn the "Tonight Show" chair. As his time on the show wound down, reports surfaced that Leno was in talks with NBC about his future at the network, which suddenly included a 10 p.m. talk show, announced in December 2008. The grand experiment, "The Jay Leno Show," premiered at 10 p.m. in the fall of 2009. Leno clearly tinkered with the format of his earlier show by keeping his topical monologue and some of his more popular segments, like "Jay Walking," while adding new features like a current events "roundtable" inspired by the success of similarly formatted late night shows. The 10 p.m. show presented a host of unforeseen problems, however, especially when it was not as enthusiastically received as had been hoped. Local NBC news broadcasts complained of a noticeable dip in their numbers, thanks to the middling ratings of its lead-in, while some networks boycotted allowing their primetime actors to be guests on the show, as it was now a competitor in the lucrative 10 p.m. time slot.
There was further grumbling that the show essentially forced NBC to eliminate five potential dramas from its schedule to accommodate five nights of the same show in the same primetime slot. As rumbles started over the show's possible cancellation, Leno publically expressed his desire to return to the 11:30 p.m. slot. By January 2010, Leno's show was officially cancelled and set off a firestorm in the media as to what would now happen to O'Brien and "The Tonight Show" which had only had six months to find its footing. Not willing to risk losing their staple talk show, nor, seemingly, Leno to another network, rumors abounded that NBC would return Leno to 11:30 p.m. and "The Tonight Show" would be bumped to midnight. Not surprisingly, O'Brien fans were outraged, seeing the possible maneuverings as unfair to their favorite late night host. To make matters worse for NBC and Leno, by extension, public sentiment in general leaned particularly strong toward the perceived victim in all of this, O'Brien.
On March 1, 2010, Leno returned to his regular spot on "The Tonight Show" following the Winter Olympics and immediately saw a drop in the ratings from five million viewers to four, though it still remained the most watched program in that time slot. As O'Brien went on to host "Conan" (TBS, 2010- ), Leno remained relatively quiet for the next several years, continuing with his show and doing the best he could to put the sordid mess behind him. But in March 2013, he was back in the spotlight when he launched scathing remarks against NBC in his monologue, calling the network "extinct" while lambasting its executives as "snakes." While talk show hosts poking fun at their home networks had always been routine, Leno's vitriolic jokes raised speculation that he may have been on his way out once more. The rumors accelerated when talk show host Jimmy Fallon was widely considered to be Leno's replacement, which was all but confirmed by "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" executive producer Lorne Michaels in an interview with GQ magazine. As speculation spread like wildfire, Leno remained mum while continuing his broadsides against NBC on his show. After weeks of speculation, NBC made it official in April by announcing Fallon would be taking over as host of "The Tonight Show" in February 2014.