"What does Jay have on you? What does this guy have on you people? What the hell is it about Jay?" - Conan O'Brien, to NBC President Jeff Gaspin, January 7, 2010
When Conan O'Brien returns to television on November 8th, James Douglas Muir Leno will still be over at NBC, still the host of what used to be the holy The Tonight Show. What a loud minority of the country always seems to wonder is how he ever got to be Johnny Carson's replacement on the late night program in 1992 in the first place. You can have a ruthless agent named Helen Kushnick make secret deals with NBC on your behalf all you want, but don't you still have to be "funny", or at the very least "amusing" to host a comedy show? The answer is yes, obviously. But what some people don't know is that Jay Leno actually used to be funny. And not only was Jay Leno at one time funny, but the person responsible for giving him the exposure to be noticed by NBC in the first place throughout the 1980's was the man who now openly mocks Leno at the slightest of provocations: David Letterman.
Leno and Letterman first met in 1975 in Los Angeles when they were both starting out as stand-up comedians. Within a year, the two of them were hired by Jimmie Walker, then an actor on Good Times, as writers. Leno would be the first out of the two in the friendship to appear in front of the camera when he appeared on the Season 3 episode "J.J. In Trouble". The Chin gives himself a good one-liner to say before setting J.J and America straight on STD's.
But Letterman would be the first to host a late night talk show, getting his big break on April 9, 1979 when he guest hosted The Tonight Show while Johnny Carson was M.C.ing the Academy Awards. After hosting an Emmy award winning but eventually canceled morning talk show, NBC picked Letterman to replace Tom Snyder as host of the 12:30 am talk show following Carson. Late Night with David Letterman premiered on February 1, 1982 and quickly became a critical and ratings success by being an irreverent, self-aware "anti-talk show" with a massive ironic streak. And David Letterman and his producers booked Jay Leno on the show over forty times during the show's twelve year run on the air.
In one of his earliest appearances, Jay Leno proved he fit in perfectly with the show by presenting a book called Late Night's Big Little Book Of Overdone and Hackneyed Comedy Premises. Here's Leno, a guest on a talk show, on a talk show talking about what not to say on a talk show by giving examples of cliche comedy bits while using a giant prop, even though prop comedy is mostly lame. And since this was 1982, Leno can't help himself but to make fun of a then sleazy Times Square.
In March 1984 Leno presented a funny "photo essay" of the difference between his and Letterman's personal lives. It poked fun at Letterman (already) being known as a bit of a homebody and at Jay's ego. After that came a common "What's Your Beef?" segment where Letterman would let Jay loose on anything that was bothering him that he already thought up jokes about. To their credit this proceeded Peter Griffin's "Grind My Gears" segment by a good twenty or so years.
Leno would sometimes come out and riff straight off of the TV Guide where he would complain about the banality of television. I know. If you think that isn't strange enough, in this clip Leno and Letterman have the following exchange:
Letterman: "I don't really need to be out here do I?"
Leno: "That's what I've been telling the network for 18 months."
A personal favorite joke: "I see David's Cookies; I see Steve's Ice Cream; I see Bobby's Muffins. Remember when we used to make STEEL in this country?!"
In September 1984 the two have a bit of a back and forth over their recent press. After David talks to Leno about the Chin's appearance in Rider magazine, Leno talks about Letterman's recent appearance in Playboy, claiming that Letterman was only able to appear in Hugh Hefner's publication because Leno passed them up. In lieu of Playboy, Jay shows the audience that he appeared on the cover of Women Are Our Equals magazine with Geraldine Ferraro. Adding to the run of this particular segment is Letterman making a quick little quip about having a ton of "love slaves" working upstairs.
To appease the fans that want him to do his infamous Elvis impression, Leno presents a short he made called Viva Late Night. Letterman's response, of course was: "I owe you an apology. When you starting talking about that I thought for sure that it was going to be something stupid." After the screening, Leno continued to bring up the ridiculous eighties fad of television shows having episodes about evil twins.
When 1985 rolled around Leno tried his luck raiding Don Johnson's closet. Both the sartorial choice and Letterman set Leno up perfectly for one of the funnier transitions to a commercial break you'll see.
Perhaps Jay's greatest appearance was on August 21, 1985. While every single comedian that tours the country has jokes about air travel, Leno is legitimately funny in his descriptions of his particular "Fellini nightmare", possibly due to the fact that he is truly passionate in his vitriolic ranting. He even gives terrorists a new idea and some Williamsburg kids a new band name with assuming there is such a thing as a "shiite cookie bomb". After the commercial he somehow grows angrier when he spews about his hatred for the circus, a.k.a. the "traveling syphilitic sideshow with diseased animals with hermaphrodite clowns throwing anthrax spores at the children."
Leno's star began to shine more and more in 1986: NBC hired him to appear on a couple of blooper specials with Dick "Mr. Blooper" Clark and Ed McMahon, he hosted both a special on Showtime and an episode of Saturday Night Live, he began to occasionally guest host for Carson on The Tonight Show and most impressively of all, Chris Elliot impersonated him on Late Night.
Leno talked about Chris Elliot's impersonation of him on the show a few weeks later.
With Helen Kushnick as his agent and after years of relentless touring, Jay Leno became the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show in 1987. To ensure that he would keep the momentum going and eventually take over for Johnny Carson permanently when Carson retired, Leno's jokes began to lean more towards the safe side. In were innocent jokes about his family; out was the hermaphrodite clown and anything bashing television material. Even worse, according to Letterman in this November 1987 appearance, he started to lie to the press about his own life story.
During the 1988 writer's strike Leno took off his suit and took Letterman on a stroll down memory lane, sharing the jokes Dave wrote for Jimmie Walker with America twelve years before. Let's just say that David has come a long way. And that Sweden sounds great for teenagers.
In 1990, on the night before a sold-out appearance at Avery Fisher Hall, Leno tells an amusing, possibly real story about how Na'lens police told him his lovely wife Mavis was probably going to leave him. By now Helen Kushnick and Jay Leno had a secret deal in place with NBC executives ensuring that Leno would be the future host of The Tonight Show. David Letterman of course did not know this.
Johnny Carson announced his retirement on April 22, 1991, and soon after NBC officially announced that Jay Leno would be his successor. This was despite the fact that Johnny Carson always felt that Letterman should take over for him and that Letterman himself thought the job was his to lose. Leno's final appearance on Late Night in 1992 featured Jay referring to Europe as "clown town" and arguing with his father about the availability of hot dogs in McDonald's. Provincial but admittedly family friendly material.
One year into Jay Leno's tenure at The Tonight Show, David Letterman left NBC for CBS to compete directly with his old friend. The friendship had completely disintegrated and the two hadn't spoken to one another until of course, a few days before this past year's Super Bowl.
David Letterman later explained the creative process behind writing that surprising commercial while describing the late night wars in his own special way. To explain why Leno would appear in an advertisement for Letterman's show, Dave explained that Leno "can never say no to anything". I guess the friendship remains on its indefinite hiatus.
Republished with permission from Rough Draft. Read the original piece here.
Roger Cormier is the writer and director of the critically mentioned short film Brian's Gonna Die. He is the proprietor of the website Yay Sarcasm! and has entertained tens of spambots on Twitter. His band about robots is a work on progress.