Comedian Jay Leno was the longtime host of NBC’s The Tonight Show.
Jay Leno was born in New Rochelle, New York, on April 28, 1950. Beginning his stand-up career while in college, Leno moved to Los Angeles and wrote for television. He became guest host of The Tonight Show in 1987 and—when Johnny Carson retired in 1992—NBC chose Leno as his replacement. In 2009, after 17 years as host and an Emmy, Leno handed the show to Conan O'Brien. But, only a few months later, NBC caused controversy by bringing Leno back as host and bumping O'Brien. Leno left The Tonight Show when his contracted ended in 2014.
Famed comedian and television host Jay Leno was born James Douglas Muir Leno on April 28, 1950, in New Rochelle, New York, to father Angelo Leno, an insurance salesman, and mother Cathryn Leno, a homemaker. He later moved to Andover, Massachusetts, where he spent the duration of his childhood and young-adult life.
As a student in grade school, Leno displayed his comic tendencies with pranks and practical jokes. His fifth-grade teacher's report card comments—"if Jay spent as much time studying as he does trying to be a comedian, he'd be a big star"—turned out to be prophetic.
He is best known for being one of the busiest performers in comedy; for years he booked more than 300 appearances annually. He's also famous for his clean, observational brand of humor and a cartoon-like facial features, which he made reference to in the title of his 1996 autobiography, Leading With My Chin.
Foray into Comedy
Leno attended Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech therapy. While in school, Leno performed stand-up comedy in local night clubs, and emceed talent shows for extra money. He moved to Los Angeles after graduation, and wrote for the television show Good Times; a job that fellow late-nighter David Letterman also had. In addition he worked as the warm-up act for Johnny Mathis and Tom Jones.
Leno made his first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1977, and was a regular on the variety show The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. Show. In the mid-1980s, Leno hosted his first comedy special on TV: Jay Leno and the American Dream. Around this same period, he made numerous successful appearances on late-night TV, particularly Late Night with David Letterman. Later that year, he signed a deal with NBC that made him one of two permanent guest hosts of The Tonight Show. He became the only guest host two years later.
'The Tonight Show'
In 1992, Johnny Carson surprised many by retiring from his long-standing role as America's beloved and premier talk show host. There had been speculation that David Letterman, whose Late Night show followed Carson's, would take over hosting duties, a position he had publicly coveted. However, NBC picked the more clean-cut Leno, who most considered to be a safer, more middle-America-friendly choice.
Initially, the transfer of hosting duties to Leno did not go smoothly. There was a well-documented falling out between Leno and his long-time manager, Helen Kushnick, who had assumed executive-producing duties for the show. In what had become a cut-throat environment in the late-night talk show world, Kushnick reportedly threatened potential guests not to appear on other talk shows if they wanted to be on The Tonight Show.
Kushnick was eventually fired, and the show gained momentum and a growing audience. The show now leads the late-night ratings. In 1993, Leno's contract was extended by five years, at $40 million, and two years later, Leno won an Emmy Award for his performance as The Tonight Show's host. In 1998, he was renewed again for another five years, this time at $100 million.
Move to Prime Time
In 2003, Leno announced that he planned to leave NBC by 2010. Late night talk show host Conan O'Brien of Late Night with Conan O'Brien was soon named Leno's heir apparent on The Tonight Show. But in December 2008, shortly before Leno's contract was set to expire, the network made a surprise announcement: In 2009, Leno would move to a new primetime slot. The new program, The Jay Leno Show, debuted in September 2009.
Unfortunately, Leno's new show, which aired at 10 p.m., failed to attract much of an audience. The ratings for The Tonight Show also declined after Conan took over as host. NBC planned to move Leno's failing show back to late night, pushing Conan's Tonight Show back until after midnight. But Conan wanted no part of that scheduling change. The network eventually decided to put Leno back behind the desk at The Tonight Show. Leno returned to late night in March 2010. Conan went on to launch a competing show for TBS.
In August 2012, Leno made headlines for taking a pay cut. He reportedly decided to reduce his salary to try to save the jobs of some of his Tonight Show staffers. NBC had eliminated 20 jobs as part of a cost-cutting effort. Around the same time, rival network ABC announced that it would move Jimmy Kimmel Live! to an earlier time slot to compete against The Tonight Show.
Leaving 'The Tonight Show'
In April 2013, Leno announced his plans to exit The Tonight Show when his contract ended in 2014. He hosted his last Tonight Show on February 6, 2014, which featured guests including Billy Crystal, Garth Brooks and many surprise appearances by celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Carol Burnett, Jack Black and Kim Kardashian, among others.
In a statement released by NBC, Leno wished his successor Jimmy Fallon well. "Congratulations, Jimmy. I hope you're as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you're the old guy."
After leaving The Tonight Show, Leno was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame on March 11, 2014. He continued to tour as a stand-up comedian and perform at various charity events. He also hosted Jay Leno's Garage, a web series inspired by his love of cars and motorcycles on NBC.com, which became a TV series on CNBC in 2015.
Leno has been married to wife Mavis Nicholson since 1980. They live in Los Angeles, where he spends his spare time working on his collection of classic cars and motorcycles.