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.
It just didn't work. We got notes from network executives, "We want the comedy sketches near the end of the show to lead into the 11 o'clock news, so put your best at the end." It was a dumb idea. It didn't work because [viewers] didn't hang around long enough. I've always been leery of any show that has the star's name in it. That's never a good thing.
When NBC returned you to the "Tonight Show," you were painted as the bad guy who took Conan O'Brien's job away. And a lot of the people attacking you were fellow entertainers, like David Letterman.
The thing with Dave is, he's funny. Please. We're comics. I take potshots all the time. Dave always had a punch line. Dave always put the joke first.
But he wasn't the only one. Jimmy Kimmel went after you as well.
I don't quite get that one. Jimmy Kimmel's very funny, I think he's very talented, but he's a radio guy. It's a different sensibility, where you attack the guy on the other station hoping to get into a fight with him.
He appeared in a bit on your show and proceeded to take you apart for the Conan fiasco.
I didn't edit it out. I said, "It's my fault, I walked into it. Keep it in."
It seemed like you were caught off-guard.
Sure I was. But I didn't edit it out. Was it a mistake to have him on? Probably.
Some critics say your comedy got broader and less biting on "Tonight." True?
When you start out and all your jokes are about flying economy and how you got ripped off and, "I went to the hotel and the hotel was 60 dollars a night," and that's where the humor is, well, when people see you on TV and you're making money, you can't be the hip, cutting-edge guy every single night of the week. It's not possible.
You can't say "What's my beef?" every night?
Exactly! I use Sam Kinison as a role model. Sam Kinison had a hilarious bit about necrophilia. About a guy having sex with a dead guy, and the dead guy screaming out. And I'm like, "OK, where do you go next? OK, you have a bit about sex with a dead guy. It's hilarious! But what's next?" The whole point behind this is, you try to keep the water hot rather than boil away.
But Kinison's whole act was all about going too far.
When Sam died in the car accident, it was the best career move. Because where do you go next? You can't be [angry] every single day.
Well, have you ever been on the Internet?
But that gets really boring, doesn't it? You read maybe 10 comments, and then none of them are clever after a point.
You went after President Clinton a lot, but you seemed to have tried to keep the jokes bipartisan over the years.
Here's how it works: You start as a comedian, then you become a humorist, then you become a social satirist, then you're out of show business.
You have to learn how to work a room. It's the art of compromise. I booked myself into Oral Roberts University once, just to see if I could play it. It was interesting. They didn't want any sex jokes.
Do you feel like politicians have used the show over the years, such as when Arnold Schwarzenegger came on and announced his gubernatorial campaign?
You're using each other. You don't let people get away with things. We had Michele Bachmann on, and we didn't let her get away with any of her silly, anti-gay nonsense.
NBC's current entertainment boss, Bob Greenblatt, got angry with some your jabs at the network and called you to complain.
They make such a big deal about it. I said, "Bob, I've been doing these jokes since I started." But he didn't come from [a broadcast] network, he came from Showtime. So I think he was a bit taken aback by how upfront we were about doing jokes about our network.
It's fine. Who doesn't get yelled at by their boss once in a while?