Thursday night is the end for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
After 22 years, the 63-year-old host is leaving NBC's legendary late-night talk show and handing over the reins to Jimmy Fallon.
The Times recently spoke with Leno backstage at "Tonight" about his departure, his thoughts on comedy and the Conan O'Brien fiasco of four years ago, and what he'll do next. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
You've said that leaving "Tonight" now feels "about right." But I can't imagine you're happy.
I'm not unhappy. This is a great franchise, and you like to keep it No. 1. I'm real proud we've been able to keep it No. 1. You know, there are people who like you and people who don't like you. "You suck, you stink." Whatever it is. But like baseball scores, like football scores, at the end here's the results. We've kept the show No. 1 for 20 years straight. And we've won every demographic group, all this kind of stuff. And eventually you hit diminishing returns.
Look, if NBC didn't have Jimmy Fallon in the wings, would I be here a little longer? Probably. But you know, he's really good. I really like him. He's a true couple of generations away from me. When I see him do his musical numbers and stuff, I say, "I can't do that. That music is not my music."
He also plays games on the show, like "Egg Russian Roulette."
It is a different show. But I think he's closer to what Johnny [Carson] was when he started.
So what are you going to do?
I've always been a stand-up comedian that had a day job. This is my day job. I've always been on the road every single weekend — and the week too — since I got this job. So I'm back on the road. We leave here on the 6th. The 7th I'm in Sarasota. The 8th I'm in Clearwater. The 9th I'm in Naples, Fla. The 10th I'm in Miami ...
It's what you have to do if you want to do comedy. You can't take a year off and come back. No one's ever taken time off as a comedian and come back and been better. It doesn't work that way. It atrophies. You have to do it all the time.
What about doing another late-night TV show?
No, I don't think so. I mean, the ground has to lie fallow for awhile, I think. I've been doing this a long time. I have no plans to go up against anybody else. People go, "Oh, Jay's waiting in the wings." It's so stupid.
If you come back and you're not No. 1 the first night, people are like, "Jay sucks!" The whole thing starts all over again. It all gets silly.
Do you worry about getting older?
No, actually. I am in better shape against other 63-year-olds than I ever was against other 25-year-olds. I am not an athlete. I don't drink, I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I run a couple miles every day and I work out every day. If I was a tennis player or something like that, it'd be, "Oh my God, I'm getting older, I can't swing as much." But you're telling jokes. It's not that hard. Comedy is like golf. You can do it into your elderly years.
Several years ago, NBC had the idea to put you on at 10 p.m. The show bombed. Why?
NBC came up with this idea, "Listen, we'll do a show at 10 o'clock and you can keep all your people, everybody in the same offices, everyone still gets a paycheck." I was like, "Eh, let's give it a try." It seemed like an interesting idea at the time. The idea was that we would not do well during sweeps and then when everyone else was in reruns we would be an original program. So the idea was, when everyone else was down, we'd be up and vice versa. Well, we never got to the point where everyone else was down.