Jay Leno has long been considered an everyman, albeit an everyman with millions of dollars in the bank and a fleet of cars hidden in a Burbank aircraft hangar. Stories about Jay Leno and his insatiable desire to be the host of The Tonight Show are legendary in comedy circles, and, despite being written about at length in Bill Carter’s books The Late Shift and The War For Late Night, many people aren’t aware of Leno’s do-anything-to-win attitude. Leno pulled maneuvers that sound like something out of an NBC drama rather than actual behind-the-scenes antics of a talk show.
You may know that Leno and Letterman had a falling out over who would host The Tonight Show in 1992, but the things that prove Jay Leno is a jerk are the stories of how he rose to prominence as the voice of Middle America in the early '90s. Even though Leno claims to be an unassuming guy who just ended up in show business, he has actually employed some extremely underhanded tactics in order to create a toxic atmosphere in which he can thrive.
Long before Late Night Wars of '92 began, people were sure that David Letterman was the next in line to host The Tonight Show. Not only was Letterman hosting The Late Show – the show that followed Johnny Carson's show at 11:30 pm – but he openly glorified the gig. In a 1989 interview with Time, Letterman was already fielding questions about taking over for the beloved host. When asked if he would take over for the host when he retired, Letterman answered, "I guess of course I would. But I think ultimately I would be happy just to be considered." If only Letterman knew how wrong he was, and if only he knew he – and the hosting gig – was in Jay Leno's crosshairs.
He Wore A Disguise To An NBC Press Conference So He Could Ask Questions About Himself
In 2008, before Conan took over The Tonight Show, Jay Leno was in high-stress mode because he was being pushed into a forced retirement. Since there weren't any important conferences for Leno to eavesdrop on from a closet (which he actually did in 1992), he opted for a different espionage strategy. Donning a bald wig, glasses, and goatee, Leno went to an NBC press conference and actually managed to ask NBC Universal co-chairman Marc Graboff a couple of questions about Leno. First he asked when Leno's last show was, and in his most telling moment he asked, "Now, Brett Favre retired and then wanted to come back, and the Packers said no. What do you make of that?" Graboff told the in-disguise Leno that NBC wouldn't be allowing the star to return saying that it "puts management in an impossible decision."
Jay Leno Bullied NBC Executives Into Giving Him The Tonight Show Job
Leno's campaign of passive aggression began long before Johnny Carson announced his plan to retire from The Tonight Show. Based off the strength of Leno's rapport with his then-friend David Letterman on The Late Show, Leno was able to be signed on as the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show in 1986. Throughout the late '80s, Leno was able to ingratiate himself with Carson's older viewers, while still playing it cool with Letterman. According to people who worked on Carson's staff, Leno was never openly vying for the job, but Letterman could feel The Tonight Show slipping away from him every time Leno filled in.
As time went on, Leno worked everyone in NBC and its new owners GE, and he manged to be named as Carson's successor. But he didn't have the job just yet. At the same time that Leno was glad-handing, Letterman had retained the services of Michael Ovtiz – the co-founder of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) – who managed to get NBC to change their mind about Leno. Leno didn't let this get him down. He began a grassroots P.R. campaign that saw him giving interviews to anyone who would have him and speaking directly to affiliates and advertisers in order to garner their support.
Leno's Manager Took Out An Attack Ad Against Johnny Carson
After Leno was signed on as the host who would take over for Johnny Carson after his retirement, he had to sit around while Carson figured out when he would leave the show. Leno's manager, Helen Kushnick, became impatient and decided to plant a fake story about NBC being disappointed with Carson's performance. An anonymous "associate" told The New York Times: "She asked me to plant a story somewhere" with no attribution saying that NBC execs thought that Carson was stale and his audience was too old. The story ran in The Post on Feb, 11, 1991 with the headline: "There Goes Johnny; NBC Looking to Dump Carson for Jay Leno."
Leno claimed that he didn't know who concocted the story, and that he was sure it didn't come from his camp. When he told Carson this out-and-out lie, the host simply responded by saying, "It came from you."
Jay Leno Hid In A Closet To Spy On NBC Executives
One of the more pathetic things that Leno did to ensure that he became host of The Tonight Show was to spy in on a conference call while hiding in a closet. According to Bill Carter’s The War for Late Night, in 1992, Leno hid in the closet of an empty NBC office and listened in as executives discussed whether Leno or Letterman should host The Tonight Show.
Leno listened in and took notes about who was on his side, as well as who wanted Letterman to take over. This story was just a rumor until a 2014 Access Hollywood interview with Leno where he copped to the whole thing. “I was in, there’s a huge closet in there. I just pulled the door behind me and listened, very simple. I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have a manager, I don’t have anybody. It’s nice to know what’s going on.” Leno's assertion that he didn't have an agent was in direct opposition to a 1992 Entertainment Weekly article that noted Leno had been using the services of manager Helen Gorman Kushnick since 1975.