Jay Leno on his biggest recent mistake: "I should have never gone to the hospital."
That's when he hands the keys to successor Conan O'Brien, who will join Leno's Boston homeboy James Taylor as the last guests on the last Leno-led Tonight Show next week.
Other guests for that finale week: Mel Gibson (May 25), Arnold Schwarzenegger (May 26), Wanda Sykes (May 27) and Billy Crystal (May 28)
Insisting that he's keeping most of his staff and not even leaving the studio lot where Tonight is shot, Leno wouldn't even allow that his recent hospitalization and first-ever missed taping a few weeks ago was an alarm bell signaling he might want to, I don't know, slow down?
"No," he said, before a reporter could even finish the question. “The only alarm that went off for me then, was (thinking) this is a huge mistake: I shouldn’t have gone to hospital. If I was in Lipstick Jungle, I could have had a bullet in my head and nobody would have moved me.”
Since the Tonight Show started more than 50 years ago, there have only been five hosts -- Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, soon-to-be host O'Brien and Leno. So his exit interview -- where he admits Elvis Presley and Jack Benny are the two great guests he never got -- takes an added resonance.
Here's some of the juicy bits from a press session scheduled for 45 minutes, which stretched well past an hour:
“Have I planned an emotional, spontaneous moment? (laughing) No. It’s a celebration. It’s not like we’re leaving show business or leaving the network or even leaving the (studio) lot. The Tonight Show is the America’s Cup of television; you just don’t want to screw it up. We’ve won every sweeps period since '93 or '94, so when I hand it off to Conan . . . it's like, when you bring the rental car back, there’s no dents and you have a full tank, that’s great!”
What will your new 10 p.m. show be like in the fall?
“The real key to this, is having a lot more comedy in the last half hour. Research shows people like the monologue, people like Headlines . . . we'll update those and freshen them up. The real trick is that second half hour. Although my job previous to this was to give a good lead-in to Conan, the job giving a good lead-in to the 11 p.m. news is really, really important. That's where a lot of our affiliates make most of their money. We have some interesting elements that will be a little different There hasn’t been a successful 10 o'clock launch of a dramatic series in the last five or 10 years. There’s no laughs at 10 o'clock. And to me, 10 o'clock is like 11:30. Even young people go, I can't stay up past 11."
“Yeah, I heard it. I just have an ear for that. I said uh-oh. My immediate thing was 'We can just edit that out.' But he’s the president, you can’t edit anything out; everything he says is immediately transcribed all around the world. Uh-oh, i said, this is going to cause some problems. He’s a basketball player, he was just trash-talking. He threw a line out as a zinger, it wasn't meant that way."
What have you loved most about doing The Tonight Show?
“I enjoy anything that involves the real people stuff. If you give people enough rope, they hang themselves. The trick is, you try to size up the situation. If you see a fat guy, you make fun of his tie. If a guy is a banker or Wall Street guy, you nail him, If he’s a carpenter or working man, you build him up a little bit. They understand you’re having a little fun with them at their willing expense.”
You're a car collector; what car would you take with you if stranded on a desert island?
If you’re stranded on an island, you’re not going to do a lot of driving.
Why will this 10 p.m. show work?
“I think it will be harder. It’s easier going against a parade of white guys, because they’re all doing the same thing. CSI – that’s the best-looking show on television. We’re just going to offer an alternative. Do I expect to beat them at first – probably not. This is the long haul. This is an economic decision. We can do five Tonight Shows for less money than you can shoot one of these 10 o'clock dramas. If we can hold on and do well – (when dramas are in repeats); Christmas holidays, Thanksgiving, that’s when we're going to make up the difference.”
Giving any advice to Conan?
“He’s been No. 1 since day one, so I don’t think he needs any help from me. I like the guy, we’re friends. Unlike the Miss California contest, this is a peaceful transition. The key to Conan is that he’s always had material. If there was any awkwardness in performing, it was backed by strong bits and good material. He just had to grow into being a good performer.”
“Ben is very enthusiastic. If it was up to Ben I would be out there doing a monologue with a McDonald’s hat and a Budweiser jacket on. We’ll look at it and see – I’m pretty much an advertiser-friendly guy. Since I’ve done the Tonight Show, I haven’t done commercials. I figure, you’re on TV everyday, you don’t really need to push it. So, it’s somewhere between Ben’s enthusiasm and no.”
How did you handle the time when you didn't know if you might be leaving NBC?
The real trick in show business is, not to get too excited and not to get too depressed. My feeling with show business is, you don’t fall in love with a hooker. It doesn’t become my life. I don’t let it absorb me."
"I remember a guy came up to me once and said 'I hate you, but I like some of your jokes.' And I thought, okay, so you don’t like the manufacturer, but you kind of like the product. There are really only about 18 guests in the world who make a difference in the ratings. The rest is up to you. The reason Ellen DeGeneres is the most successful host on daytime television is because she comes with jokes. She’s prepared with material. I always try to have more jokes in the monologue. Some guys have eight or nine, we have 30 or 40. This is like good food at sensible prices. I tell you, I’m a great believer in low self-esteem. The only people I find with high self-esteem are criminals and actors."
"This is sort of mass entertainment. Was Bob Hope the the funniest comedian of all time? I don’t know. Was he the most popular – he was pretty much the mainstay . . . You’re only as good as you last game or your last touchdown. That’s pretty much the way this works."