When Jay Leno was at his peak as a stand-up comic a generation ago, he was actually considered edgy. That changed when the comic, who will perform Friday at the Durham Performing Arts Center, took over for Johnny Carson as the host of “The Tonight Show” 22 years ago. After that, Leno’s stand-up comedy began to mirror what he delivered on the late-night chat show – safe humor.
Over the years, that “safe” approach has been equally applauded and criticized. (“The Tonight Show” – which handed the reigns to Jimmy Fallon in February – has consistently been a ratings leader.)
Count frequent old-school “Tonight Show” guest Burt Reynolds among those more critical. Reynolds recounted in a recent interview what it was like to be a guest on the show, both with Carson and with Leno. “With Johnny, it was something else,” Reynolds said. “They would give me drinks in the green room and hope that tonight was the night that I swung from the chandelier. It was wild. But it was different when I went on with Jay. First off, you walk out and you get this great standing ovation. It felt good until you discover that everyone gets a standing ovation. And then Jay would race you to the punchline. And then there were the questions.”
Leno has addressed the various raps about his hosting style. “Charlie Rose I’m not,” Leno admitted during a 2009 chat. “If you want to accuse me of being rah rah, guilty as charged.”
But there are quite a few entertainers who appreciate that “rah rah” style.
Comic Jim Norton, who did a number of segments on “The Tonight Show,” tips his cap to Leno. “Jay doesn’t get enough credit,” Norton said in an interview. “I did (‘The Late Show With David Letterman’) a couple of times and Dave was friendly, but Jay comes into the dressing room and sits down with you. He makes you feel comfortable. I’ll always defend Jay. ... Jay will be missed on television, but you know he’ll be out there doing stand-up.”
Strong stand-up roots
The post-“Tonight Show” touring isn’t a change of pace for Leno; he always kept a rigorous schedule, performing stand-up during the weekends throughout his long run hosting for NBC. In fact, Leno recently told comedian Jerry Seinfeld that he never spent a dime of his “Tonight Show” money, living solely on his income from stand-up comedy.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m a comedian,” Leno said in a 2008 interview. “That’s how I came up. It doesn’t matter if you host a show; you’re a comic first and foremost.”
Leno prides himself on his comic background in part because he himself started out on the ground floor of comedy – writing jokes for other comedians. During the ’70s, he wrote jokes for Jimmie Walker, at the time a hugely popular stand-up comedian and the star of “Good Times.”
“He was always very talented,” Walker said of Leno. “It didn’t surprise me at all how Jay kept climbing the ladder. He didn’t stop until he was at the top rung.”
Of course, there was a well-known gap during Leno’s top-rung “Tonight Show” tenure. Leno was informed in 2004 after signing a five-year extension that he would leave the program in 2009 because NBC promised Conan O’Brien, host of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” the “Tonight Show” job.
When other networks started to court Leno, NBC offered him a prime-time show. After Leno and O’Brien both tanked in the ratings, NBC decided to bump back O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” a half-hour and precede his show with Leno. O’Brien severed his relationship with the network and Leno returned as “Tonight Show” host in 2010. (O’Brien got another late night show – “Conan” – on TBS.)
It was a public relations disaster for NBC. Leno was mercilessly skewered in the press and by fellow late-night hosts Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. But soon enough, Leno was once again pulling big numbers for NBC and remained a draw until he was replaced by Fallon.
Their later contentious relationship aside, Leno was actually at the top of his game when he guested on “Late Night With David Letterman” on NBC back in the late 1980s. When told that he was at his funniest on “Letterman” during the “Jay’s Beef” segments, the Massachusetts native grew reflective.
“You think so?” Leno asked. “We had some fun together. I have a lot of great memories in this business. I’ve been incredibly fortunate.”