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Five Night-Years From Johnny

Jay Leno has survived a sometimes-rocky tenure on 'The Tonight Show.' Why isn't he enjoying the view from the top?

May 18, 1997|Verne Gay | Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday

Five years can do a lot to a man, for better or worse. Jay Leno knows this well, perhaps better than any other human being to have walked into the late-night TV arena and survived.

On the surface, he seems exactly the same as the day he took over "The Tonight Show" on May 25, 1992. There are no noticeable scars, no limps. The famously nasal voice still registers somewhere between adolescent whine and adult baritone. The chin is still The Chin.

But on closer inspection, there is something very different about the fellow. It is the hair. Directly above his forehead is, Elsa Lanchester-like, a lock of black hair adrift in a sea of gray. Now that he's well into middle age, this could be a vestige of lost youth, maybe even a reminder of a time when the late-night game was mostly fun and not mostly war.

Yet in a fanciful sort of way, it could also be considered a badge of honor: the mark of a survivor who is not only five years older but five years wiser. Once bloodied but always unbowed, Leno is still standing.

Standing, in fact, taller than anyone else in late night at this moment. Night in, night out, his industrial-strength talk-variety show attracts 6.3 million viewers, 2 million more than you-know-who.

Circa 1997, five years could be the next best thing to eternity in late-night TV, where hosts come and go as ratings rise and plummet. But that is not the reason Leno's fifth anniversary as the successor to Johnny Carson is such a remarkable one. His very first year on the air was just about as bad as NBC executives could ever have feared--with his intense manager and executive producer, Helen Kushnick, alienating network management, talent agents and the staff, followed by a very public internal squabble over whether Leno ought to be ousted in favor of David Letterman. Leno won that battle, only to see things get worse in 1993 when Letterman left for CBS and promptly trounced him in the ratings. Critics quickly proclaimed Letterman the new "king of late night."

In spite of this hellish start, "Tonight" pulled into first place in 1995 and has remained there. Sweet vindication for someone about whom there had been doubts--even among top NBC executives--that he'd be celebrating a first anniversary, much less a fifth.

It is not a prediction to which Leno, 47, ever subscribed.

"Without sounding cocky, yeah, I thought [a fifth] would happen," he says, not sounding at all cocky. "It never occurred to me it would not work out." He adds: "When I was a little kid, my mother said [success in school] would take me a little longer than the other kids, 'but you'll get there, you'll do just fine.' That's been my philosophy through this whole thing."

So why is Jay not jumping for joy? Why no grand prime-time hoopla, like Letterman's special in February on his 15th anniversary as a late-night host? (A muted affair is planned, in "The Tonight Show's" regular time slot Thursday, the day after the May ratings sweeps end.) Why no well-deserved chest thumping?

Why, in fact, does Jay Leno sound so bloody pensive and somber?

Two reasons. The first has to do with Leno, the pragmatist.

"I don't use that term 'king of late night,' " he says. "To say that or even say 'We're No. 1' is a bit like being in the airline business, where you say you're the safest airline and then the next day. . . ."

Indeed, just as he is consolidating his hold on late night, the landscape is beginning to shift under his feet--again. Four months ago, ABC launched "Politically Incorrect," which has begun to makes tracks in a place that has long been a trackless wilderness: the post-"Nightline" berth. And this summer, two new late-night talk shows will launch: Keenen Ivory Wayans' show for Buena Vista and Columbia TriStar's "Vibe." A third show, hosted by Magic Johnson, bows next January.

The second reason has to do with Leno, the human being.

For if Leno himself declines to claim the "king of late night" crown, no one else is bestowing it on him either. He has won the kingdom but not the glory. While the show is an undeniable success with viewers, for most of the nation's critics it remains a pariah: a fluke, headed by a host who is workmanlike but uninspired. "Is he man or machine?" an Esquire profile wondered.

Entertainment Weekly, self-appointed arbiter of hip, declined to name him one of the nation's 50 funniest people in a recent issue. That snub, colleagues say, was especially painful to Leno, who considers himself more of a comedian than a broadcaster. And Entertainment Weekly is not alone: His ascendance has been accompanied by a collective yawn rather than a wave of adulation.

On Leno, the toll is obvious. When asked basic, standard-issue questions--Are you completely happy with the show? Is this what you want to do with the rest of your life?--he steps around them as he would a banana peel on the sidewalk. "Anybody can have a life," he says bluntly. "Careers are hard to come by. I'm doing exactly what I want."

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