No matter how you feel about Jay Leno, the truth is that he will always be associated with The Tonight Show. As with many others who have risen to fame, Jay’s ride to the top was a bumpy one. Overcoming all obstacles standing in his way, from his controlling manager to his hidden agendas to even fire incidents, Jay Leno’s career has been far from boring...
The Rise of Fame and Unpopularity: Comedian Jay LenoPublished 2 months ago
There's no denying that Jay Lenos's life has been quite eventful. We'll start with the latest news: He was miraculously saved from a fire incident in his Burbank garage - by none other than a close friend. Jay explained to the media that he was working on one of his cars in his famed garage, where he was fixing a clogged fuel line. Suddenly, there was a fuel leak and gasoline sprayed on his face and hands. Almost simultaneously a spark triggered an explosion, setting the comedian on fire.
As a result, the left side of Jay's face was burned, and he is dealing with 3rd-degree burns and may need skin grafts. Fortunately, the burns did not cause damage to his eyes or his ears.
On April 28, 1950, Catherine Muir and Angelo Leno welcomed their second child into the world. Together with his older brother, Jay was born and raised in New Rochelle, New York. While his father went out and sold insurance in one of New York’s most dangerous areas, Jay’s mother stayed at home.
While Catherine and Angelo loved their boys, tough love was the parenting style they had chosen. They wanted to raise children who had good manners and were well-behaved. Jay’s parents did the best that they could but as he got older, he chose to push boundaries instead.
When he was old enough to work, Jay’s parents insisted that he get a job and start earning his own money. That’s how he started working at the popular fast-food chain, McDonald’s. While Jay believed that this job was just temporary, the school guidance counselor encouraged him to take it more seriously.
Why do you ask? Well, because after looking at his behavior and grades, it’s where they thought he’d be for the rest of his life. Jay recalls the counselor telling him that “Sometimes students are better off doing jobs and menial tasks.” That’s pretty harsh, especially coming from someone in that position!
Did you know that McDonald’s used to host a regional talent show? Until he started working there, Jay didn’t either. Thankfully, his manager differed from his guidance counselor in a very important way. He saw potential in Jay and encouraged him to perform. The television host recalls his manager saying, “Look, you’re a funny guy. Why don’t you put together a comedy routine for the show?”
Not only did Jay’s performance win him the competition but it also got him an audition at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. This was a big deal and Jay knew that it needed to go well. So, when he awoke on the morning of his audition with a sore throat he panicked. After spritzing his throat ten times with Chloraseptic spray, Jay thought that he was good to go. What he didn’t realize was that the spray would numb his entire mouth.
Despite not being able to feel his mouth, Jay got on stage and tried to perform as if nothing was wrong. However, it was clear that something was wrong and his audition was a total disaster. None of his jokes were landing because he couldn’t get any of them out!
Jay knew that he hadn’t won over his audience and believed that he had blown his only opportunity to make it as a comedian. Thankfully, the owner of the club realized that it wasn’t Jay’s fault and decided to give him another shot. Not only did he nail his audition the second time around, but he also managed to land his first real gig as a comedian.
Jay was new to the industry and eager to make a name for himself. It didn’t take him long to realize that not everyone meant business. However, it did take him a while to figure out who could be trusted. A number of directors had offered Jay roles in films but all had turned out to be scams. So, when Ivan Passer gave him a similar offer, he declined.
Since Ivan really wanted Jay to feature in his upcoming film, Silver Bears he decided to try again. Just a few days later, Ivan made Jay the same offer. Only this time, he gave him the production office phone number as well. It was then that Jay realized Ivan was serious and immediately accepted the role. Not only was this a career-changing opportunity but it got him a face-to-face interview with his hero.
Jay was trying to solidify his spot in Hollywood as a stand-up comedian, so being cast in a film was a big deal. An even bigger deal was being invited as a guest on The Tonight Show to promote that film. The popular television show had helped kickstart a number of successful comedians’ careers and Jay hoped that it could do the same for him.
Even if it didn’t, he would still get the opportunity to meet his hero and host of the show, Johnny Carson. On March 2, 1977, Jay made his debut as a guest and even performed on The Tonight Show. Despite a rocky start, he stuck the landing and got invited back several times. In fact, it also opened up a whole bunch of new opportunities for him as well.
A few years later, Jay was regularly invited as a guest on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman. While he enjoyed appearing on shows with older, established comedians, he found that he could be himself more freely with people his age. As it turns out, his off-the-wall humor and mock outrage were just some of the things that David loved about Jay.
In fact, they were the inspiration behind the “What’s Your Beef” segment of the show. During this time, Jay had the opportunity to talk about what he found to be outrageous that day. The audience ate it up…and so did some of NBC’s VIPs.
Jay’s humor was tailored to younger viewers which just happened to be exactly what NBC had been looking for. After a few appearances with David Letterman, the company decided to see how Jay would cope as a host. NBC decided to start him out small, offering him a position as a regular guest host who filled in when Johnny was away.
As you can imagine, Jay jumped at the opportunity. Not only would he be filling in for his personal hero but would be doing it on one of the biggest shows on late-night television. Jay was officially on the map and Helen Kushnick believed that she knew how to keep him there.
His career seemed to be advancing but Jay needed to make sure that it was moving in the right direction. So, when Helen Kushnick offered to take him under her wing, he accepted. Having managed a number of comedians before Jay, Helen knew her way around the industry and managed to give his career an end goal. Well, at least that’s what it looked like on the surface.
Helen’s goal was to make Jay the permanent host of The Tonight Show. The problem was that much like Jay, there was little she wouldn’t do to get what she wanted. Before long, his career took a dark turn down a path where his manager had full control over him. In fact, when Jay suggested something new, Helen snapped at him, yelling “You don’t get paid to think. I’ll think.”
Did you know that Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years? As he approached his 66th birthday, NBC decided that it was time to find his replacement. After much deliberation, they narrowed it down to Jay and David Letterman. Knowing that he wasn’t their only choice, Jay came up with a plan to find out what NBC was thinking.
n a desperate attempt to find out insider information, Jay hid in a closet and eavesdropped on an NBC conference call. During the call, votes were cast behind either Jay or David. Little did they know that Jay was in the closet, taking notes on who was against him. He now had information that David didn’t and decided to use it to his advantage.
While the NBC executives debated who should take over Johnny’s post, their competitors saw an opportunity and took it. CBS approached Jay with an offer that most wouldn’t have been able to refuse. Despite the $6,000,000 contract dangling in front of him, Jay only wanted one thing and that was The Tonight Show.
Not long after declining the CBS offer, NBC announced that Jay would be the show’s next successor. Jay was ecstatic but not many others were. Many people believed that the spot belonged to David and apparently so did he. Shortly after their announcement, David made one of his own. He was leaving NBC to host a competing show at CBS.
Jay had followed in his hero’s footsteps and was about to get his dream job. The only thing that would’ve made his victory sweeter was if Johnny had been happy for him. Johnny was one of the many who believed that David should’ve been next in line. However, he probably still would’ve appeared on Jay’s show if Helen hadn’t stepped out of line.
Things were moving too slowly for Helen so she decided to speed things along…by spreading a fake story about how NBC was tired of Johnny Carson. As a result, Johnny refused to appear on Jay’s show. However, he did appear several times on David’s competing show. We can only imagine how much that must have stung Jay!
In a fight between Jay and David, Jay emerged victorious. However, this didn’t appear to be a once-off thing. In fact, it was soon clear that Jay was willing to do anything to get ahead… including stealing guests from smaller shows.
According to one of Jay’s victims Dennis Miller, “The booking wars exist, that’s all I can say. For [Leno's team] to say it doesn’t exist - well, I was privy to the whole schematic.” It seemed that passive aggression was Jay’s trademark and one that he used to put smaller shows out of business. As you can imagine, he soon became very unpopular with a large number of people, including Arsenio Hall.
While Jay’s tactics helped to advance his career, they also got him a long list of enemies. He had already gotten rid of David Letterman and Dennis Miller and Arsenio Hall was next in line. While Jay emerged victorious once again, Arsenio put up quite the fight. During an interview with Good Morning America, Arsenio revealed that he didn’t approve of Jay’s behavior.
He went on to say that “Jay and I used to be friends. Dennis and Jay used to be friends. Johnny handed over a legacy, and they never mentioned each other’s names. Something’s wrong with someone who is always surprised about people being upset with him.” Jay showed that he had no remorse for his action when he responded with "Hey, welcome to show business! What are you gonna do?"
While Jay was turning his fellow comedians into enemies, Helen was doing the same with NBC. The company wanted nothing to do with her but Jay insisted on trying to write up a new agreement instead. Helen would be able to stay an executive producer but was unable to book and cancel guests or talk to the media. Even if NBC had agreed to it, Helen wasn’t going to.
In fact, people got to watch as she “changed from a cool, controlled, rational person to someone screaming and out of control in a matter of seconds.” NBC approached Jay with an ultimatum: either he fired Helen or Letterman would be given his job. They knew that there was only one option in Jay’s mind and that was to get rid of his manager. Little did they know that he had a few difficult goodbyes lined up.
Months passed and Jay was still riding high from his promotion to The Tonight Show. However, all it took was a call from his mother to knock him back down. A routine visit to the doctor had left her family processing a very difficult diagnosis. Jay’s mother had lung cancer and passed before being able to see in the new year.
After her passing, it didn’t come as a shock when Jay’s father started to deteriorate as well. According to the television host, “He sort of lost his own will to fight.” Before long, Jay had to say goodbye to his father as well. Thankfully, Jay believes that they never truly left him since “I’ve got all of their stories and that keeps them nearby always.”
Through all of Jay Leno's trials and troubles, his wife, Mavis Leno, has been by his side. Married in 1980, they've been together without incident or scandal ever since.
But before he married Mavis, you might be surprised to learn that Leno spent some time with none other than Sharon Osbourne (before she was married to Ozzy). In 2014, Sharon revealed the two had had a one-night fling in 1976 that left her...unsatisfied: "Well it only took a minute, so I'll just say, it took a second, that was it." Well, you can't win 'em all.
Soon after filling his new post, Jay realized that The Tonight Show had the potential to get out of hand. While part of his job was keeping his audience entertained, the other was making sure that his guests behaved. While some guests were easier than others, Bobcat Goldthwait was the exception.
In the middle of the interview, Bobcat got up and set his guest chair on fire. Instead of reacting badly, Jay simply sighed and put the fire out with his cup of coffee. He ended it off by making Bobcat sit back down on the exact same chair. It was an episode that the audience will never forget and it wasn’t the only one.
While hosting The Tonight Show, Jay was able to talk with a number of Hollywood’s favorites. This included director Quentin Tarantino who was there to promote his new film, Kill Bill. Jay had been looking forward to their interview but soon realized that it wasn’t going to go according to plan.
Quentin had befriended the open bar in the green room and was heavily intoxicated by the time he stepped onto the set. Instead of learning interesting details about his guest’s work, Jay spent the interview keeping Quentin in line. He was more than a capable host which is why he was shocked when the rumors of his replacement started to circulate.
Jay had settled into his position as host of The Tonight Show and couldn’t see himself doing anything else. However, there had already been talks about who he’d be passing the torch to after he left. Jay was flooded with memories of his feud with Letterman and tried to avoid making the same mistake.
In 2004, Jay tried to get ahead of the rumors by announcing that he would retire in 2010. Conan O'Brien, the host of Late Night, was set to replace him and everything was going to be handled peacefully. Well, that’s at least what Jay wanted people to think. In reality, he was devastated and determined to keep his show.
On January 23, 2005, Jay’s scheming was put on hold when the world of American television was rocked by tragedy. Emphysema had claimed the life of their beloved host, Johnny Carson. Despite their falling out, Johnny had not only shaped Jay’s career but had someone he looked up to.
In an attempt to honor his hero, Jay dedicated an entire episode of The Tonight Show to Johnny and everything that he represented. Jay started the show by saying, “As a performer, I don’t think I ever wanted to impress anyone more than Johnny Carson. He had that effect on all comedians.” Each guest that came after him shared his fondest memory of working with him. For once, one of Jay’s ideas had gone according to plan…and it was beautiful.
Not long after his tribute to Johnny, The Tonight Show went back to hosting unpredictable guests. Since most of them were funny and harmless, they made for good entertainment. However, it was during Colin Farrell’s interview in 2006 that things got dangerous.
Being a Hollywood star, Colin has a large number of fans most of which are happy to admire him from a distance. Dessarae Bradford was not one of them and had been stalking the actor for some time. When she heard that he was appearing on The Tonight Show, Dessarae snuck past NBC’s guards, broke onto the set, and confronted Colin. Thankfully, she was escorted out before things escalated and Jay was able to lighten the mood by sarcastically calling for “a round of applause for NBC security.”
No one ever doubted Jay’s hosting abilities but his show did take a knock when members of the Writer’s Guild of America went on strike. 12,000 members demanded better working conditions and wages, both of which were rejected by NBC and several other studios. Jay felt for his staff and tried to help wherever he could.
At first, this came in the form of donuts and coffee in an attempt to keep spirits high. However, when he realized that they needed more, Jay tried to comfort them with his words. To his staff of 80 writers, he said “I can’t get into details, but nobody will miss a car payment or lose their house. We’re family. Trust me. I’m going to take care of this.” His words eased tensions…too bad that they were filled with empty promises.
Not long after Jay told his staff that they had nothing to worry about, NBC released a statement stating otherwise. Every single one of Jay’s staff was being fired. Naturally, the staff all looked to the television host for an explanation but they were met with silence. In fact, Jay carried on with his show as if nothing had happened.
His staff felt betrayed and were devastated that he had hung them out to dry. Unfortunately, there was nothing that they could do. Jay’s show continued to bring in viewers and with each one making him seem even more untouchable than before. What Jay didn’t realize was that NBC had already turned on his staff and they were about to do the same to him.
Jay knew that NBC had plans to replace him with Conan O’Brien but he didn’t know when or why. Hosting The Tonight Show was his dream job so he wasn’t going to sit back and watch it disappear. However, for Jay to come up with a plan, he needed more information. While there wasn’t a closet for him to hide in, there was a press conference that he could attend.
If Jay walked into the press conference, everyone would recognize him and no one would answer his questions. So, after throwing on a bald cap, glasses, and a goatee Jay started interrogating the panel. He wanted to know when his last show would be and if he would be able to return to his position once it had been given away. Unfortunately, it seemed that he would have to wait a little longer for this information.
It was during his contract negotiations that Jay finally got the answers he had been looking for. NBC executives revealed that the audience he had brought in was getting older. A new host would be able to attract younger viewers and make sure that the show stayed relevant. They revealed that at the end of 2009 people would say goodbye to the old year as well as The Tonight Show’s host.
Jay was devastated and angry but tried to keep calm on the surface. Despite releasing a statement about peacefully handing over his crown, Jay had already started thinking about how he could rig the system. When he couldn’t come up with anything, he told everyone that he was going to work for the competitor, ABC. Naturally, the NBC executives panicked which was exactly what Jay wanted.
In an attempt to keep Jay on their side, NBC executives offered him the opportunity to run his own show. Since The Jay Leno Show would run directly after The Tonight Show, it would be as if he never left at all. All they asked was that Jay’s show differed in enough ways to keep the audience engaged. While NBC thought they were problem-solving, they were only creating more issues.
Soon after Jay’s show premiered, NBC noticed that neither show was doing well. In fact, The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show’s poor ratings even started affecting other shows. With the network's total number of viewers having lowered, executives knew that they needed to act quickly.
With every day that passed, NBC’s ratings got lower. In a desperate attempt to save their numbers, executives decided to swap The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show’s time slots. That meant that Jay’s show would now be at 11:35 PM and Conan’s would air the next day at 12:05 AM.
As you can imagine, Jay was the only person happy with that suggestion. Conan believed that changing the show’s time slot after so many years was simply unacceptable. In fact, he felt so strongly about it that he quit. That meant that just seven months after being pushed out of his job, Jay had managed to get it back.
Finally, Jay felt as if he was back where he belonged hosting The Tonight Show. While he may have won back his spot, he lost a lot of fans along the way. Viewers couldn’t help but feel sorry for Conan who was now no longer on air. Having watched the ordeal play out, most of them stood firmly behind him and against Jay.
In order to fix his ratings, Jay knew that he had to win back the support of his viewers. That’s when he decided to go on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah was the go-to woman when trying to repair a reputation. However, there was only so much that she could do without any help from Jay.
After Jay had pushed yet another host out of NBC, viewers started to realize that he was the problem. After hearing that he would appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, everyone was eager to hear what he had to say on the subject. To no one’s surprise, Jay never accepted responsibility but instead shifted the blame onto Conan.
According to Jay, the only mistake he made was in 2004 when he told Conan that the show would be his. He revealed that "I told a white lie on the air. It was just maybe easier that way.” If fans thought that Jay would apologize for the situation, they were sorely mistaken. The only thing that changed after Jay’s appearance on the show was that his enemy list grew a little longer.
Light was being already shed on Jay’s true personality and it seemed that ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel was about to shed some more. Remember when Jay threatened to leave NBC for ABC if they replaced him? Well, Jimmy revealed that Jay had befriended him during this time despite being after his timeslot.
However, as soon as NBC gave in to Jay’s tantrum, Jimmy never heard from the host again. Having been a victim of Jay’s mind games, Jimmy was sympathetic towards both David and Conan. So, when the opportunity to get back at him presented itself, Jimmy took it. After accepting an invitation to Jay’s show, Jimmy used every chance he had to get in a dig at Jay. His answers left Jay laughing uncomfortably with nothing else to say.
Both NBC and Jay believed that bringing him back was the only way to improve their ratings. So, when the ratings continued to drop, no one knew what to do. However, at least doing nothing was better than what Jay did.
NBC was losing money at a rapid rate meaning that executives were already on edge. So, when Jay openly mocked the network's poor performance during his show, they didn’t respond kindly. In fact, without much discussion, they announced that Jay would be retiring at the end of the year and that Jimmy Fallon was going to replace him.
For once, Jay accepted defeat and is now no longer the host of The Tonight Show. However, stepping down didn’t mean that he was going to stop stirring up controversy. While appearing as a guest judge on America's Got Talent, Jay stepped out of line. He cracked a joke racist joke that offended many people.
While NBC edited out the joke, Gabrielle Union felt that further action needed to be taken. After complaining to producers and expressing her discomfort, she assumed that Jay would be dealt with accordingly. However, instead of taking Jay on, NBC fired Gabrielle.
We’ve spoken a lot about Jay’s continuously growling list of enemies but have only mentioned a few names. So, if you were interested, here are just some more celebrities on this list. Jimmy Kimmel planned “the comedy version of The Tonight Show” while Arsenio Hall described Jay as "punk-ass Leno."
According to George Lopez, Jay is “the biggest two-faced dude in TV” while Howard Stern wanted to know “Where’s the emotion? Where’s the humanity?” During an interview, Chris Rock said "You're a bad man, Jay Leno" and Patton Oswalt compared him to the infamous president, Richard Nixon. As you can imagine, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
People may not be able to say that Jay is a nice person but they have to admit that he was very smart with his money. As it turns out, Jay never stopped doing stand-up performances meaning that he had two incomes. Instead of spending it all on extravagant things, Jay lived off one salary and saved the other.
Banking his NBC salary has left the former host with a net worth of $450 million. No one can deny that it’s an impressive amount. Now that he's set for life, maybe he can focus on being a nicer person to those he works with.