NBC is making a huge mistake in replacing Jay Leno. He is still No. 1 in the ratings overall and in the coveted 18-49 demo. If I were them, I would ride that horse until it collapsed. (Please kids, it’s only a metaphor. Don’t ride your horses until they collapse. "But Mommy, the comedian told me to…")
Now don’t get me wrong, I like Jimmy Fallon a lot. I used to work with him way back in his comedy club days. Always very nice and very polite, two qualities that are often in short supply in comedians. I think Jimmy Fallon is talented. He is a very warm, friendly host. He is very engaged in the interviews and has a lot of fun with the guests.
But here’s what you get with Leno.
1. He’s funny. The first time I saw Jay was in the late '70s at Catch a Rising Star in NYC. I was just starting out as a comic and hanging out with the other beginners hoping to get some stage time. Richard Belzer was the house emcee. When we think of Belzer today, we think of the laid-back, sarcastic quipster he plays on Law & Order. Back then he was the biggest, fastest, strongest, most aggressive act in New York. He had an insult act; it was Don Rickles on speed. We were all little joke monkeys, and he was King Kong. One night, Jay walked in and heckled Belzer from the back of the room. He went toe to toe with him and then finally just topped him with every line. We newbies in the back were stunned. It was as if some kid had walked into Gleeson’s gym and knocked out Mike Tyson -- and not just knocked him out with a lucky sucker punch but with a steady stream of jabs followed by a couple of uppercuts and then a haymaker. There was a new champ in town.
2. He’s really funny. In the 1980s at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Jay was clearly the best comic there. On Saturday night in the main room, there was a show billed as the “Best of the Comedy Store.” All the strongest comics on one show. I remember one night when each of us was just dying up there. One after another just going out there and coming back in a coffin. And then Jay closed the show. He started slow like all of us had. First with the McDonalds bit. Small laughs. He just kept plowing ahead. The Buick chunk: “Big car. It seats six -- for dinner.” A little better. Keeps bucking the headwinds. By the end of his 20 minutes, he got to his Bonanza jokes: "And what’s with Ben Cartwright? … He’s got a son Hoss, who’s bald and older than him.” Now he’s killing. He did what none of the “Best of the Comedy Store” could. He got that audience. No savers, no blaming the audience for not laughing, just straight-ahead comedy. Just butting his head against a brick wall and the wall loses.
3. Jay works hard. In my nine years working on The Tonight Show, my job as a writer was to sit with Jay and decide what jokes would go into the monologue every night. I would go to Jay's house every night at 10 p.m., and we would sift through 200 jokes to get the 10 to 15 that were comedy gold. Those 10 to 15 would be the base for the next day’s monologue. I would limp home at 2 a.m. The next day I would drag myself in in the early afternoon. Jay would have been there since 9 a.m. He had already read through 500 jokes and would hand me a stack of cards with the 150 or so that he liked. I would then pick the 10 to 15 best out of that pack, and they would be added to the monologue to get us up to the 25 for that night. I don’t know anyone else who would have that kind of patience and drive. Five hours sleep. Five hundred jokes. Maybe somebody else could do that once or twice, maybe once a week, but day in day out, month after month, year after year. He is just a great white shark -- never sleeping, always moving forward.
4. Jay is fearless as a comedian. Most comedians would be intimidated being in the presence of the president of the United States, tongue-tied, not able to form sentences, let alone make jokes. Not Jay. We once went to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This was right at the end of President Clinton’s term. And Jay had been hammering President Clinton every night with Monica Lewinsky jokes. So we are backstage right before the show, and President Clinton walks in the room. Jay says to me, “Would you like to meet the president?” I said, “Sure, that would be an honor.” So he walks me over to President Clinton. And right as I’m being introduced, right as I’m shaking his hand, Jay says to him, “This is the guy who writes all the jokes about you.” Fearless.
This is not a comedian you want to send out to pasture. He’s got a few more good races in him.