Jay Leno's last guest will be his successor, Conan O'Brien
When Jay Leno steps down as the fourth host of "The Tonight Show" on May 29, his successor will be by his side. During a conference call with the media Thursday, Leno said that Conan O'Brien will be his last guest.
Although his job doesn't include booking guests, Leno said his staff planned the last week's lineup, keeping in mind whom some of his favorite people are, such as Mel Gibson, who will make his 25th appearance on May 25, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will stop by on May 26. Leno said that it made sense to invite O'Brien to be the last person to sit on the couch. (Other guests that week include Wanda Sykes, Billy Crystal and musical guests Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Sarah McLachlan and Prince).
O'Brien, 46, will take over "The Tonight Show" on June 1. That move was announced five years ago when ABC tried to steal O'Brien and NBC counter-offered with Leno's job, a plan put in place long before NBC planned to scrap 10 p.m. scripted programming in favor of a nightly comedy show, starring Leno, for next fall.
"I’m glad that it's going to be Conan," Leno said. "It couldn’t go to a better person. I mean, he’s the guy and we’re friends and it’s a really smooth transition and I think it will be a lot of fun."
Although industry observers have wondered if NBC's decision to hold onto Leno, who was being courted by ABC and Fox, will diminish O'Brien's late-night role, both Leno and O'Brien have gone out of their way to say they are friends and are not competitive with each other.
"I think that NBC’s attitude about these things is that you should always leave these shows while they’re No. 1," Leno said. "Five years ago, Conan was set to go to ABC and they said, 'We don’t want to lose Conan. What do you want to do?' And I said, 'Whatever you want to do, guys. ' So I said, 'Fine, whatever you want.' That’s pretty much the way it worked."
Leno was in a good mood as he spoke to reporters for 70 minutes during a wide-ranging discussion in which he recalled some of his favorite moments on the show and expressed his excitement over his new gig. The last five shows will include some retrospectives, and it will end in a "special" way, Leno hinted.
"I have something really unusual and different planned, something really out of left field," he said. "It’s something really personal and it seems unusual and it has to do with our show. And I think it will make people smile. It will be interesting. I don’t want to give it away."
Leno said his staff on "The Jay Leno Show" will include many of his current employees and they've begun setting up their offices on the same lot. Although the team hasn't begun working on the new show, Leno says he has an idea of how it will play out. He will open with a monologue and go over the day's headlines because research has showed his audience wants him to keep those elements, he said. But the rest of the show will be different.
"The real key to this is having a lot more comedy in the last half hour," Leno said. "Although my job previously was to give a good lead-in to Conan, the job leading into the 11 p.m. news is really, really important. That’s really where our local affiliates make their money...So we have some interesting elements that will be little different, I think. We just need to get a couple more of them. I’m excited about it. I think it’s going to be fun. I think it’s going to work well."
When NBC first approached Leno about creating a show for prime time, executives asked him to do a half-hour nightly show at 8 p.m., Leno said. But he turned them down.
"Nobody’s going to watch a 59-year-old, not the best-looking guy in the world, for half an hour," Leno said. " You need attractive guests and women. You need more of a show."
Then someone had an idea to create a new show at 10 p.m. and Leno's first instinct was that he didn't want to compete against dramas, such as "CSI." But then he learned that no new drama has launched successfully in that time slot for several years, so he asked NBC to do research to see if people would tune in earlier to see him.
"This isn’t a decision we went into lightly," Leno said. "I’m not an egomaniac. It’s not like this is my idea and I’m going to ram it down people’s throats."
But Leno, who regularly goes on the road with his stand-up act, said he thinks viewers appreciate the one-on-one connection they get from a talk show.
"It’s why I go out on the road and do these shows," he said. "You go out and you make eye-to-eye contact and you shake hands. And you touch people. And it’s the same thing with this. You come on at 10 o’clock, you look right in the camera, you talk directly to people. We try to keep it as low-tech as possible. It’s just a little human contact and you try to bring a little humor before people go to bed."
Leno shared his show business philosophy when asked if he's nervous about his new venture.
"The real trick to show business is try not to get too excited and try not to get too depressed. You know, my feeling about show business is, look, you don’t fall in love with a hooker…I come in here and I enjoy it. But it doesn’t become my life. I don’t let it absorb me. I’ve had a successful run. If nothing else happened in my life, that was great, I’m thrilled. If this show is a success, I’ll be over the moon. It would be wonderful. If it didn’t work out, I’ll be, 'Oh, well, at least I’ve had this.'"
Even if NBC hadn't offered him a new job, Leno said he had no intention of retiring.
"I like to work," he said. "It's what I like to do. It’s fun for me. So the idea of retiring and doing what? Going to Hawaii? That’s my idea of hell. Stuck in a Ritz Cracker in the middle of the ocean with some fat American, drinking a Mai Tai, oh my God, get me out of here."
--Maria Elena Fernandez
--Photo: NBC Universal