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Jay Leno is saying goodnight to 'Tonight'

Rick Bentley
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Jay Leno easily could have used his status as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" to demand long vacations. It never happened: The only days Leno missed in the 16 seasons he hosted the late-night talk show were when he had to be hospitalized for a couple of days because of a raging fever.

Even when NBC executives came to him five years ago with the plan that would give Conan O'Brien "The Tonight Show" job as a way of keeping the red-haired talk show host from moving to ABC, Leno did whatever the bosses wanted.

Leno — only the fourth person to host the NBC late-night show since it started almost 55 years ago — will end his run May 29. He'll return to NBC in the fall with a new prime-time talk show.

He leaves "The Tonight Show" the same humble way he arrived. (Make all the jokes you want about his big chin, but Leno never let his job give him a big head.)

"The real trick to show business is try not to get too excited. Try not to get too depressed," Leno says in a telephone interview to discuss his final week as host of "The Tonight Show." "I have the same friends I had in high school. I'm married to the same woman I had. I'm still driving the same car I had when I dated her — although I got a few more. I come in here and I enjoy it. I enjoy being a voyeur to show business. I enjoy looking at it and being around it. But it doesn't become my life. I don't let it absorb me."

Many of Leno's more than 3,800 nights behind the desk have made news. Hugh Grant came clean about an indiscretion. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his run for governor. More than $360,000 was raised for The Twin Towers Fund in 2001 and more than $505,000 was raised to benefit the Red Cross Hurricane Katrina Fund in 2005 through.

Almost every major celebrity — entertainment, sports, politics — has visited Leno.

He regrets that he never got to chat with two people: Elvis and Jack Benny. Both died before Leno was given the late-night forum.

Out of all his guests, the most memorable was John Kennedy Jr. One of Leno's most vivid memories from his childhood was watching President John F. Kennedy's 1963 funeral on TV.

"My mother was crying just hysterically," Leno says. "When you're a kid and your mom is crying it's just like 'Oh my God, this is like an unnatural thing.' I didn't know what to do. I was totally lost. I'd look at the TV. I'd look at my mom. I didn't know how to fix the situation."

Leno flashed back to that moment when John Kennedy Jr. walked out on the stage.

"I shook his hand and looked up in the monitor. I saw me shaking hands with John F. Kennedy Jr. And I immediately flashed to my mother just being hysterical and it was kind of an emotional moment. That was probably one of the more emotional moments for me on the show."

It was those kind of moments that resulted in "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" winning Emmy Awards in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1999.

The honors have also been the result of long hours of work.

Despite the tenacity he has shown over the years, Leno rejects being called a workaholic. He enjoys the work too much.

And the work was just not "The Tonight Show." Leno has been on the road almost every weekend to perform his stand-up routine.

One of the comedy jobs took him to Hawaii on a Friday night. He talked his wife, Mavis, into going with the promise they could stay until Sunday. After 15 minutes (that seemed like hours) of sitting on the beach Saturday morning, Leno and his wife were on the noon plane home.

He won't even use his last days on "Tonight" as an excuse to take a break. The day after he says his farewell, Leno will be in Atlantic City.

"I"m a great believer in low self esteem. The only people I find that high self esteem are criminals and actors. And if you have low self esteem and you always assume you're the dumbest person in the room, you'll work harder," Leno jokes.

Although he won't be back on the air until September, Leno has already started work with his staff on his new prime-time show that takes over the 10 p.m. weeknight time slot that has long been the home for one-hour scripted dramas.

Once the new show launches, Leno will face a different challenge. Instead of competing with similar shows that Leno refers to as a "parade of white guys," he will have to lure viewers away from crime dramas and legal shows.

"My job previous to this was to give a good lead-in to Conan. The job of giving a lead-in to the 11 o'clock news is really, really important. That's really where our local affiliates make their money," Leno says.

He will use the same philosophy he has used all these years.

"The one thing I learned from Johnny Carson is no matter what happens, whether a bomb goes off or there's some disaster, no matter what horrible thing goes on, you go out and you do the jokes. And when the times are bad, you do silly jokes. When the times are fun, you can do serious jokes, but you always try to have material because you're job is to cheer people up at the end of the day," Leno says.

As for the transition to O'Brien taking over "The Tonight Show," Leno offers no advice. He doesn't think O'Brien needs any.

"It has just been a peaceful exchange, unlike the Miss California USA pageant," Leno says.

———

SHOW INFO

"The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," 11:35 p.m. weeknights, NBC

Here is the list of guests for Leno's last week

May 25: Mel Gibson and Lyle Lovett

May 26: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwight Yoakam

May 27: Wanda Sykes and Sarah McLachlan

May 28: Billy Crystal and Prince

May 29: Conan O'Brien

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