Tonight marks Jay Leno's final episode as host of The Tonight Show, after occupying that position for some 21 non-consecutive years. Many would argue that he stole that job from David Letterman, whom Leno's predecessor, Johnny Carson, had picked for the spot. Many would argue that he then stole it again from Conan O'Brien, who briefly occupied the spot from 2009-2010 when Leno failed to transition his act to prime time.
On a smaller scale, many would have a hard time arguing that Leno isn't a joke thief. He's been accused of ripping off other people's material repeatedly. Yes, theft is something that many a great comedian has been accused of. Yes, it's possible for two people to have the same idea, especially in the medium of mainstream joke-telling, which rewards obvious observations.
But the accusations against Leno are numerous. The sheer volume is damning. Funny that, because Leno himself sued a woman for stealing his jokes for a book in 2006. When the case was finally settled in 2008, Leno had this to say about the deplorable practice:
I thought it was important to make it clear that jokes are protected like any other art form. On behalf of the tremendous and talented group of writers we have at The Tonight Show and many other hardworking comedians, I'm very glad we've been able to stop this practice once and for all.
Haha, yeah right.
In the Las Vegas Review-Journal, writer Christopher Lawrence broke down some of Leno's borrowed bits:
"Jaywalking"? Stolen from Howard Stern. "Headlines"? That's Letterman's "Small Town News." Leno's "Don't Try This at Home"? You might remember it as Letterman's "Stupid Human Tricks." Even the "Green Car Challenge," the Jar Jar Binks of late-night bits, is a watered-down version of "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car," a recurring segment on Britain's "Top Gear," of which Leno is an admitted fan.
Below are a few more specific examples of when what came out of Leno's mouth was identical (or virtually so) to that of someone else.
Mitt's joke (February 18, 2010):
As always the games were very inspiring, but by the way, you probably didn't hear the news this morning—late breaking—the gold medal that was won last night by Lindsey Vonn has been stripped. It has been determined that President Obama has been going downhill faster than she has.
Jay's joke (March 1, 2010):
Lindsey Vonn on the show tonight. She was amazing, did you see her! When it comes to going downhill, nobody's faster. Ok, maybe except for NBC.
Shane's joke (February 18, 2010):
Tiger a devout follower of Buddhism or Booty-ism? I still say the later.
Jay's joke (March 1, 2010):
[Tiger Woods is] returning to Buddhism… as opposed to what he was practicing before– that was 'Booty-ism.
Conan's joke (March 11, 2008):
Latest show business rumor is that Star Jones has broken up with her husband, Al Reynolds. Yeah, when asked about it, Star said, "It's not the first time I've gotten rid of 200 lbs. in one day."
Jay's joke (March 13, 2008):
Hey congratulations to Star Jones, lost another 170 lbs. Her husband, yeah.
Howard's joke (November 10, 2003):
Using a chicken to predict the winner of football games.
Jay's joke (October 9, 2009):
Having NFL commentator Terry Bradshaw go up against a chicken in predicting football winners.
On this, Stern said, "This must be a giant Punk'd on me. This guy's ripped off like ten major things from my show. But the chicken thing we did for years." He also has called Leno "insane," "a crook," and, "a backstabbing cumbag."
Andy's joke (May 24, 2011):
Supreme Court orders tens of thousands of California prisoners released. This actually might help the Raiders start selling out their home games again.
Jay's joke (May 26, 2011):
Bad news for the state of California. The Supreme Court decision will force the state to release something like 46,000 convicts because of prison overcrowding. But the good news: it looks like the Oakland Raiders will have more season ticket holders!
Greg's joke (May 31, 2011):
I think [Anthony Weiner] should resign, CNN will give him a job, it can be Spitzer and Weiner, sounds gross, sounds gross, but it actually could work…
Jay's joke (June 9, 2011):
Well more and more people are now calling for Anthony Weiner to resign, but it's not all bad news: Eliot Spitzer says if Weiner does resign, he can join him on his show and they'll call it Weiner Spitzer.
Rush's "joke" (July 1, 2010):
"Undocumented Democrats, 'cause that's really what they are. They're undocumented Democrats. They're future Democrat voters, that's why the move is being made, largest voter-registration drive in history…"
Jay's joke (April 2, 2013):
In a groundbreaking move, the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering outlet in the world, will no longer use the term "illegal immigrant." That is out. No longer "illegal immigrant." They'll now use the phrase "undocumented Democrat."
This one is is more alleged then the rest of them, since Leno's thievery is vaguely sourced. Per Walker's 2012 memoir, Dynomite!: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times, in what must have been the early '90s, Walker proposed a Jeffrey Dahmer joke to Leno's comedy coordinator Jimmy Brogan, who told him not to tell it during his set on the Tonight Show because, "Jay doesn't like Jeffrey Dahmer jokes." During his appearance, Walker told it anyway. Here's how it played out:
The spot came for the Dahmer joke and I did it:
"All this talk about capital punishment, about whether the electric chair is humane, about lethal injections being humane. I have an idea that'll make everybody happy: If you want to get rid of a murderer, you rub barbecue sauce on him and put him in a cell with Jeffrey Dahmer."
Excuse the expression, but the joke killed.
I looked out the corner of my eye at Leno at his desk. He was not laughing. He was not happy.
I finished my shot and walked to the couch. Leno did not shake my hand. He said, "Jimmie Walker. We'll be right back." During the commercial break he told me, "You had to do the Dahmer joke."
"Didn't it kill?"
"That's not the point."
When we came back on the air, we did a couple more jokes and then we finished. Jay was still not over it, saying, "The point is I asked you not to do the line and you did the line."
My point was the funny mattered. Even Branford Marsalis, then the bandleader, came to my dressing room and said my shot was the funniest he had heard on the show to date.
Here's the kicker: A couple weeks later Leno was quoted in a national magazine with a joke about Dahmer. It was my joke! I was shocked. When I called him to talk about it, his staff referred me to Brogan. I have not been on the Tonight Show since.
Kamerer and Irvine's joke (2007):
A jokey jingle for Travis Irvine's campaign for mayor of Bexley, Ohio:
Jay's joke (2009):
The same damn thing. Kamerer wrote about the incident on SplitSider in 2012: Leno played this video in a segment about goofy campaign commercials, without credit or permission. Kamerer and Irvine's video was then blocked on YouTube due to a copyright claim from NBC. Kamerer had to settle for making his own work available through Funny or Die, though it's since been reuploaded to YouTube.