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Jay Leno hadn’t even retired from The Tonight Show when he made more Hollywood news with his next career plans. In January, NBC announced that they had booked Leno to host a new variety show at 10 p.m. every weeknight on its schedule. The industry has been buzzing about the blow this strikes to the hour-long dramas that would normally air at 10, what competition this offers to other networks and how it changes the talk show landscape.

The host himself was surprised it became such a big deal. “I guess it’s just a slow news day,” he joked. “It’s summer, there aren’t really any other stories. So, I guess that’s what makes it interesting.”

It is a vastly different arena for Leno. At 11:30, The Tonight Show was tops since Johnny Carson inherited it from Jack Paar in 1962. At 10, Leno is in uncharted territory. He’s already planning to add special elements, like regular correspondents and interactive activities with guests, to distinguish The Jay Leno Show from late night talk.

“That’s going to be interesting to see. I hope with the correspondents that there’ll be a lot of diversity in the show, the show will look like America; it’s not just going to be a bunch of white guys. I think that aspect of it, people will like. [I have] a lot of women, a lot of female input on the show, female writers, female performers, so I feel good about that.”

Correspondent segments will include D.L. Hughely reporting from Washington, D.C. and NBC news anchor Brian Williams filing comedy reports for Leno. “I think Brian will be really funny. He’s a good comic and will contribute some little segments for us. I’m thrilled about that.”

One of his new recurring segments will be a Green Car Challenge. With all of Hollywood bragging about their conscientious stance on the environment, Leno wants to get celebrities racing electric cars to see how well they can handle green vehicles.

“Hopefully, [we’ll do that] two or three times a week, I hope. I did it because whenever I would drive a green car, like an electric car, when I drove it to the show, the female guests would go, ‘What is that? Does that not use gas?’ And all the time, without sounding sexist, the guys are choosing the cars, and the women could care less. But, this is something where the women will go, ‘Hey, how does that work?’ And they’re really interested.  I think Drew Barrymore said that she would like to drive it.”

You’ll still see Jaywalking, where Leno interviews regular people and finds out what they don’t know. Leno will bring back characters like Ross the Intern and John Melendez, but in different capacities than they served on The Tonight Show.

“I think Ross will be with us, but I’m sure that they are looking for a lot of new people, too, so that it doesn’t look like a rerun of the old show.  John will be a writer on the show, he’ll be a contributor to the show and be in bits and stuff. We are not going to have a studio announcer. So John will still be on, just not as the announcer.”

Of course, the important component of any talk show is the guests. Leno expects to maintain the relationships he had from his previous gig. “All the people that I have had on The Tonight Show, whoever you think of, those are who the people will be. The advantage I think to the stars is that they will be on an hour earlier, actually an hour-and-a-half earlier. Ten o’clock will be a better position to talk about whatever they want to talk about.”

Perhaps even the president will come on Leno’s new show. “I would love to get Obama again. He was the greatest guest.”

Aside from trying his best, Leno can’t concern himself with the media buzz. “You just do what you do. One thing about doing comedy is when you do comedy in a night club, it’s possible to get the whole room. You can look around and see a guy over there who’s not laughing and aim jokes at him, so when you get him, you feel a sense of vindication, because you’ve got the whole room. When you do television, you can’t get the whole room. You can get a large portion of it, but there is always going to be someone that doesn’t like you because you look like their brother-in-law or there’s just some reason, and you can’t fight that.”

If you happen to see Leno on the road, you won’t hear him talking about any of his plans for the new show though. “No, I always keep it separate. I try to keep them separate.”

Personally, Leno has spent the summer getting in shape for his new endeavor. Running four miles a day, he’s lost 12 pounds, and showed off his slimmer tummy at a press conference earlier this month. He downplayed the achievement in a more intimate interview.

“Yeah, I’ve lost some weight. Two miles in the morning and two miles at night, and then I work-out. I’ve just been cutting down on pizzas.”

Even with the daily schedule of a new show, Leno plans to continue his new routine. His wife, Mavis, on the other hand, supports her husband while she does her own thing. “She doesn’t say, ‘Honey, I hope you die of a heart attack.’ She is more fit than I am. We’ve been together a long time.’”

Mavis has supported Leno’s workaholic tendencies their whole lives. Leno still tours doing standup shows on the road, but he always comes home. “I spend every night with Mavis. I’m with her all the time.”

Even with three months in between retiring Tonight and launching Leno, Leno kept booking gigs to keep working. “I’m not a big ‘time off’ kind of guy. I don’t go to a resort or anything like that.”

The one time Leno tried to do the vacation thing, it became one of his comedy routines. “I had a gig in Hawaii on a Friday and I said to my wife, ‘Let’s go to Hawaii and we’ll come back on Sunday.’ Friday, I do the gig, Saturday I go to the beach, I look at my watch and it’s 10:00. Okay, I’m sitting there and about four-and-a-half-hours go by or so, and I look at my watch, and I go, ‘It’s 10:15, my watch broke, I got sand in it and now I feel like an idiot.’ I asked somebody, ‘Excuse me, what time is it?’ And they said, ‘10:15,’ I was like, ‘I’ve only been here fifteen minutes? Really? I haven’t been here four-and-a-half-hours?’ We’re on the noon flight back. So, I’m not a big vacationer.”

That’s not to say Leno has no personal life. He wouldn’t have much perspective on the world if he only produced shows all his life. “The real trick is to lead a normal life and make show business funny. I have the same friends that I had in high school, I’m still married to the same woman, still drive the same car actually. So it’s fun. It’s fun to come home and have enough money to take care of relatives or any problems that people have without going crazy. It’s just a matter of putting things in perspective.”

An automobile aficionado, Leno now has the money to collect whatever he wants. Still, there’s always a special place in his heart for that first one. “My first car was a ’34 Ford pick-up truck. It’s fantastic. I bought it when I was fourteen and I spent two years driving up and down the driveway.”

Leno is ready to go back to his 9 to 5 though. He’s relaxed about all the hype, and actually finds some positive feedback on which to focus. ““I’m surprised at how good the feedback is actually. I think it’s going to work. I think it will work, and I think it will be fun trying. You come out swinging anyway.”

The Jay Leno Show premieres September 14 on NBC at 10pm et/pt. / Issue 103 - September 2018
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