James Douglas Muir Leno (//; born April 28, 1950) is an American comedian, actor, writer, producer, and former late-night television host. After doing stand-up comedy for years, he became the host of NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno from 1992 to 2009. Beginning in September 2009, Leno started a primetime talk show, titled The Jay Leno Show, which aired weeknights at 10:00pm ET, also on NBC.
After The Jay Leno Show was canceled in January 2010 amid a host controversy, Leno returned to host The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on March 1, 2010. He hosted his last episode of The Tonight Show on February 6, 2014. That year, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Since 2014, Leno has hosted Jay Leno's Garage.
Leno was born April 28, 1950 in New Rochelle, New York. His homemaker mother, Catherine (née Muir; 1911–1993), was born in Greenock, Scotland, and came to the United States at age 11. His father, Angelo (1910–1994), was an insurance salesman who was born in New York, to immigrants from Flumeri, Italy. Leno grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, and graduated from Andover High School. Leno obtained a bachelor's degree in speech therapy from Emerson College, where he started a comedy club in 1973. His older brother, Patrick (May 12, 1940 – October 6, 2002), was a Vietnam War veteran who worked as an attorney.
Leno made his first appearance on The Tonight Show on March 2, 1977, performing a comedy routine. During the 1970s, Leno appeared in minor roles in several television series and films, first in the 1976 episode "J.J. in Trouble" of Good Times and the same year in the pilot of Holmes & Yo-Yo. After an uncredited appearance in the 1977 film Fun with Dick and Jane, he played more prominent roles in 1978 in American Hot Wax and Silver Bears. Other films and television series from that period include Almost Heaven (1978), "Going Nowhere" (1979) from One Day at a Time, Americathon (1979), Polyester (1981), "The Wild One" (1981) from Alice, and both "Feminine Mistake" (1979) and "Do the Carmine" (1983) from Laverne & Shirley. Leno's only starring film role was the 1989 direct-to-video Collision Course, opposite Pat Morita. He also appeared numerous times on Late Night with David Letterman.
The Tonight Show
Starting in 1986, Leno was a regular substitute host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. In 1992, he replaced Carson as host amid controversy with David Letterman, who had been hosting Late Night with David Letterman since 1982 (aired after The Tonight Show), and whom many—including Carson himself—had expected to be Carson's successor. The story of this turbulent transition was later turned into a book and a movie. Leno continued to perform as a stand-up comedian throughout his tenure on The Tonight Show.
In 2004, Leno signed a contract extension with NBC which would keep him as host of The Tonight Show until 2009. Later in 2004, Conan O'Brien signed a contract with NBC under which O'Brien would become the host of The Tonight Show in 2009, replacing Leno at that time.
During the 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike, Leno was accused of violating WGA guidelines by writing his own monologue for The Tonight Show. While NBC and Leno claim there were private meetings with the WGA where there was a secret agreement allowing this, the WGA denied such a meeting. Leno answered questions in front of the Writers Guild of America, West trial committee in February 2009 and June 2009, and when the WGAW published its list of strike-breakers on August 11, 2009, Leno was not on the list.
On April 23, 2009, Leno checked himself into a hospital with an undisclosed illness. He was released the following day and returned to work on Monday, April 27. The two subsequently canceled Tonight Show episodes for April 23 and 24 were Leno's first in 17 years as host. Initially, the illness that caused the absence was not disclosed, but later Leno told People magazine it was for exhaustion.
Michael Jackson trial
During the 2005 trial of Michael Jackson over allegations of child molestation, Leno was one of a few celebrities who appeared as a defense witness. In his testimony regarding a call by the accuser, Leno testified that he never called the police, no money was asked for, and there was no coaching – but the calls seemed unusual and scripted.
As a result, Leno was initially not allowed to tell jokes about Jackson or the case, which had been a fixture of The Tonight Show's opening monologue in particular. But he and his show's writers used a legal loophole by having Leno briefly step aside while stand-in comedians took the stage and told jokes about the trial. Stand-ins included Roseanne Barr, Drew Carey, Brad Garrett, and Dennis Miller, among others. The gag order was challenged, and the court ruled that Leno could continue telling jokes about the trial as long as he did not discuss his testimony. Leno celebrated by devoting an entire monologue to Michael Jackson jokes.
Succession by Conan O'Brien and The Jay Leno Show
Because Leno's show continued to lead all late-night programming in the Nielsen ratings, the pending expiration of Leno's contract led to speculation about whether he would become a late-night host for another network after his commitment to NBC expired. Leno left The Tonight Show on Friday, May 29, 2009, and Conan O'Brien took over on June 1, 2009.
On December 8, 2008, it was reported that Leno would remain on NBC and move to a new hour-long show at 10 p.m. Eastern Time (9 p.m. Central Time) five nights a week. This show followed a similar format to The Tonight Show, was filmed in the same studio facility and retained many of Leno's most popular segments. Late Night host Conan O'Brien was his successor on The Tonight Show.
Jay Leno's new show, titled The Jay Leno Show, debuted on September 14, 2009. It was announced at the Television Critics Association summer press tour that it would feature one or two celebrities, the occasional musical guest, and keep the popular "Headlines" segments, which would air near the end of the show. First guests included Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah Winfrey (via satellite), and a short sit-down with Kanye West discussing his controversy at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, which had occurred the night before.
Timeslot conflict and return to The Tonight Show
In their new roles, neither O'Brien nor Leno succeeded in delivering the viewing audiences the network anticipated. On January 7, 2010, multiple media outlets reported that beginning March 1, 2010, Jay Leno would move from his 10 p.m. weeknight time slot to 11:35 p.m., due to a combination of pressure from local affiliates whose newscasts were suffering, and both Leno's and O'Brien's poor ratings. Leno's show would be shortened from an hour to 30 minutes. All NBC late night programming would be preempted by the 2010 Winter Olympics between February 15 and 26. This would move The Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m., a post-midnight timeslot for the first time in its history. O'Brien's contract stipulated that NBC could move the show back to 12:05 a.m. without penalty (a clause put in primarily to accommodate sports preemptions).
On January 10, NBC confirmed that they would move Jay Leno out of primetime as of February 12 and intended to move him to late night as soon as possible. TMZ reported that O'Brien was given no advance notice of this change, and that NBC offered him two choices: an hour-long 12:05 am time slot, or the option to leave the network. On January 12, O'Brien issued a press release that stated he would not continue with Tonight if it moved to a 12:05 a.m. time slot, saying, "I believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't The Tonight Show."
On January 21, it was announced that NBC had struck a deal with O'Brien. It was decided that O'Brien would leave The Tonight Show. The deal was made that O'Brien would receive a $33 million payout and his staff of almost 200 would receive $12 million in the departure. O'Brien's final episode aired on Friday, January 22, 2010. Leno returned as host of The Tonight Show following the 2010 Winter Olympics on March 1, 2010.
On July 1, 2010, Variety reported that total viewership for Jay Leno's Tonight Show had dropped from 5 million to 4 million for the second quarter of 2010, compared to the same period in 2009. Although this represented the lowest second-quarter ratings for the show since 1992, Tonight was still the most-watched late night program, ahead of ABC's Nightline (3.7 million) and Late Show with David Letterman (3.3 million).
Announcement of successor
Leno's final show as the host of the Tonight Show was on February 6, 2014 with his final guest Billy Crystal and musical guest Garth Brooks, along with a few surprise guests, including Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Jim Parsons, Sheryl Crow, Chris Paul, Carol Burnett, and Oprah Winfrey.
After The Tonight Show
Leno has maintained an active schedule as a touring stand-up comedian appearing in, on average, 200 live performances a year in venues across the United States and Canada as well as charity events and USO tours. He has also made appearances on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and on Late Night with Seth Meyers, as well as being a guest on the finale of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and doing a cameo drilling and torturing James Corden in a boot camp for talk show hosts on the premiere of The Late Late Show with James Corden. He declined an invitation to appear on Late Show with David Letterman despite speculation he would make an appearance on the show's finale.
Criticism of Leno
Leno has faced heated criticism and some negative publicity for his perceived role in the 2010 Tonight Show conflict. Critics have pointed to a 2004 Tonight Show clip, in which Leno said he would allow O'Brien to take over without incident. At the time, Leno stated he did not want O'Brien to leave for a competing network, adding, "I'll be 59 when [the switch occurs], that's five years from now. There's really only one person who could have done this into his 60s, and that was Johnny Carson; I think it's fair to say I'm no Johnny Carson." Leno also described The Tonight Show as a dynasty, saying, "You hold it and hand it off to the next person. And I don't want to see all the fighting." At the end of the segment, he said, "Conan, it's yours! See you in five years, buddy!"
Rosie O'Donnell was among O'Brien's most vocal and vehement supporters, calling Leno a "bully" and his actions "classless and kind of career-defining". Bill Zehme, the co-author of Leno's autobiography Leading with My Chin, told the Los Angeles Times, "The thing Leno should do is walk, period. He's got everything to lose in terms of public popularity by going back. People will look at him differently. He'll be viewed as the bad guy."
Howard Stern has also been a harsh critic of Leno before and following his Tonight Show timeslot change announcement; Stern appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 2006, and told O'Brien he felt it was unlikely that Leno would ever willingly give up The Tonight Show to anyone. During the conflict, Stern made many negative remarks directed at Leno while on the Late Show with David Letterman.
In addition to criticism about his handling of the timeslot conflict, Leno has also been criticized for the perceived change in the content of his monologues from his previous stand-up material. Actor and comedian Patton Oswalt was among the celebrities who openly voiced disappointment with Leno, saying, "Comedians who don't like Jay Leno now, and I'm one of them, we're not like, 'Jay Leno sucks'; it's that we're so hurt and disappointed that one of the best comedians of our generation ... willfully has shut the switch off."
Support for Leno
NBC Sports chairman and former Saturday Night Live producer Dick Ebersol spoke out against all who had mocked Leno, calling them "chicken-hearted and gutless". Jeff Gaspin, then chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, also defended Leno, saying, "This has definitely crossed the line. Jay Leno is the consummate professional and one of the hardest-working people in television. It's a shame that he's being pulled into this." Fellow comedians Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Norton (a frequent contributor to The Tonight Show) also voiced support for Leno.
Responding to the mounting criticism, Leno said NBC had assured him that O'Brien was willing to accept the proposed arrangement and that they would not let either host out of his contract. Leno also said that the situation was "all business", and that all of the decisions were made by NBC. He appeared on the January 28, 2010, episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show in an attempt to repair some of the damage done to his public image.
Leno has been married to Mavis Leno since 1980; the couple have no children. In 1993, during his first season as host of The Tonight Show, Leno's mother died at the age of 82 and in the following year, his father died at the age of 84. Leno's older brother Patrick Leno, a Vietnam veteran and graduate of Yale Law School, died in 2002 at the age of 62 as a result of complications from cancer.
He is known for his prominent jaw, which has been described as mandibular prognathism. In the book Leading with My Chin, he says he is aware of surgery that could reset his mandible, but does not wish to endure a prolonged healing period with his jaws wired shut.
Leno is dyslexic. He claims to need only four or five hours of sleep each night. Leno does not drink or smoke, nor does he gamble. He spends much of his free time visiting car collections or working in his private garage.
Leno has claimed that he has not spent any of the money he earned from The Tonight Show. Instead, he lives off his money from his stand-up routines. Leno reportedly earned $32 million in 2005. In 2014, he received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Emerson College where he also delivered the Commencement speech.
In 2001, he and his wife donated $100,000 to the Feminist Majority Foundation's campaign to stop gender apartheid in Afghanistan, to educate the public regarding the plight of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Mavis Leno is on the board of the Feminist Majority.
In 2009, he donated $100,000 to a scholarship fund at Salem State College (now Salem State University) in honor of Lennie Sogoloff, who gave Leno his start at his jazz club, Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike.
Since 1985, Leno has been the Grand Marshal for the Love Ride, a motorcycle charity event which since its founding in 1984 has raised nearly $14 million for charities benefiting muscular dystrophy research, Autism Speaks, and in 2001, the September 11 attacks recovery.
Leno owns approximately 286 vehicles (169 cars and 117 motorbikes). He also has a website and a TV program called Jay Leno's Garage, which contains video clips and photos of his car collection in detail, as well as other vehicles of interest to him. Leno's Garage Manager is Bernard Juchli. Among his collection are two Doble steam cars, a sedan and a roadster that were owned by Howard Hughes, the fifth Duesenberg Model X known to survive, and one of nine remaining 1963 Chrysler Turbine Cars. The collection also includes three antique electric cars — the 1925 Baker Motor Vehicle is his wife Mavis' favorite car.
He has a regular column in Popular Mechanics which showcases his car collection and gives advice about various automotive topics, including restoration and unique models, such as his jet-powered motorcycle and solar-powered hybrid. Leno also writes occasional "Motormouth" articles for The Sunday Times, reviewing high-end sports cars and giving his humorous take on motoring matters.
Leno opened his garage to Team Bondi, the company that developed the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, which is set in Los Angeles in the late-1940s. Leno's collection contains almost one hundred cars from this period, and allowed the team to recreate their images as accurately as possible.
Hosting the 2014 Genesis Prize award ceremony in Jerusalem, Leno made jokes mocking then-President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry, accusing Obama of "trying to break" the U.S.'s relationship with Israel.
In a 2015 interview with The Jerusalem Post, Leno said, "I always considered Israel as not only the only democracy in the Middle East, I think it’s the purest, because every Israeli voter seems to have his own political party." He also added about Israel's relations with other Middle East countries: "Israel is so efficient in defending itself and so good at it, that to the rest of the world it looks like bullying."
Awards and nominations
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| Host of The Tonight Show
May 25, 1992 – May 29, 2009
| Host of The Tonight Show
March 1, 2010 – February 6, 2014