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 host 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 the behind-the-scenes antics of a talk show. You may know Leno and Letterman had a falling out over who would host The Tonight Show in 1992, but what suggests 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 reportedly employed underhanded tactics to create a toxic atmosphere in which he thrived.
Long before Late Night Wars of '92 began, people were sure David Letterman was the next in line to host The Tonight Show. Not only was Letterman hosting The Late Show - the program 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 Carson 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.