As a stand-up comedian, you sometimes play in these very old theaters that have been restored to their original beauty. On the walls of the dressing rooms are names like Al Jolson, Jack Benny, and Burns and Allen. It reminds you that you are part of a continuum. The same thing is true of hosting The Tonight Show. You are part of an endless and grand entertainment showcase that people have held in high esteem reaching back to its beginnings in 1954. I think Jay Leno has always felt that. And he guards it and cherishes it.
That old adage that "you stand on the shoulders of giants" is so true, and Jay understands that. Jay respected the past and the people who preceded him on The Tonight Show, especially the great Jack Paar and of course, Johnny Carson, who made America laugh for 30 years before it became Jay's turn. He was so dedicated to the show and remaining at the top of his game that he would finish taping The Tonight Show in the early evening, then hop on a plane to somewhere and try out his stand-up material at clubs all across the country. He would do that dozens of times a year.
You tuned in to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno because you never knew who was going to be gently skewered or exactly what was going to unfold. The never-ending parade of guests was also something of a great equalizer. You could have the president of the United States on one night and a guy juggling plates the next. Plate juggling is also a good metaphor for hosting that show — you're always nervously waiting for that one plate that's spiraling out of control to actually hit the ground. Jay was the perfect ringleader for such a televised circus because he was fiercely devoted to succeeding at it — and invariably delivered zingers that made a nation laugh.
Some years ago, I filled in as the host of The Tonight Show for three weeks straight, and at the end of it, my brain was mush. It's a demanding job. You have to keep on top of so many things — books, pop culture, the news — and remember that the joke's the thing. You have to try to ace the monologue night after night and somehow connect with the millions tuning in at home. Johnny Carson did it for 30 years. Jay Leno did it for 22 years. I did it for three weeks and my brain was mush. What helped make Jay great as a Tonight Show host is that he saw himself as a member of the audience. He always wanted to be seen as a regular guy, not as a celebrity. There's a reason he came to be viewed as TV's "Mr. Nice Guy." There are no airs with Jay: what you see is what you get. He is genuine, and he thinks of other people. He succeeded in keeping the common touch. So if something made Jay laugh, he knew that the audience would laugh, because he was one of them.
While studying at Emerson College in Boston, Jay Leno did stand-up comedy at local clubs. After graduating in 1973, he headed to Los Angeles and became known as one of the hardest-working comedians around, booking more than 300 performances a year. In 1977, he first appeared on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Johnny Carson. By 1987, Leno was the show's sole guest host. When Carson, a Television Academy Hall of Fame member, retired in 1992, Leno took the reins of the late-night NBC show. Leno has received two Emmy Awards, one for outstanding variety, music or comedy series for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and one for outstanding special class program, for his online show Jay Leno's Garage. He hosted his final Tonight Show on February 6.
Fellow Hall of Fame member Bob Newhart, who also was a guest host on The Tonight Show, is an Emmy winner and the star of such iconic series as The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Jay Leno's induction in 2014.