It’s been a while since I was backstage at The Tonight Show. The last time was in September 2010. That night I was a guest of Zac Levi. He’s been kind enough to let me tag along to a lot of events over the years that I’d probably be hard pressed to get into otherwise.
That Friday night Zac was promoting CHUCK, his NBC series. Dwyane Wade was also on the show. Zac’s a big NBA fan and Wade is a big, well, NBA star – so there was a lot of chatter about the upcoming season both backstage and on camera.
About an hour before the show started taping, Jay Leno wandered in to say hello. He was wearing his ubiquitous denim work shirt. He greeted everyone and wished the guests a good show, then went off to change his clothes and get into make up. This was a good seven months after Leno had returned to the Tonight Show following the whole Leno/Conan debacle created by the now deposed NBC brain trust.
Tonight will be the last time Jay Leno and his staff do their jobs at Studio 11 on the Burbank Studios lot. Leno is leaving the Tonight Show for the second time. He’s been asked to leave twice – before he was ready and while he had the number one show in the time period. It’s a crazy business. It’s crazy, but it’s not that different from the places many Americans work.
I’ve been backstage at a lot of talk shows and sitcoms in L.A. What always strikes me after being there for a while is what typical workplaces they all are. I mean, other than the occasional Oscar or Emmy winner strolling by, you could easily imagine you were in the back offices of any going concern in any city in the USA. People do their jobs. They stop to swap stories. They swing by the break room during their appointed rounds to scope out the snacks. They talk sports, family, politics, etc. And they talk about the shows they watch and the music they listen to. They put in long hours then they go home to their non-work lives. Then they come back and do it all again the next day – just like a big chunk of the rest of us.
That describes people who work behind the scenes of these shows. But it also describes the stars. It’s easy to look at Leno, Letterman, Conan, Fallon, Kimmel, Stewart, Arsenio and Ferguson as chess pieces on a late night game board. But they are flesh and blood people who care about the same things we all care about. No matter the level of competition, the personal axes they have to grind or perceived level of their talent – I’d be willing to bet each of them has a healthy measure of respect for the others. They all know what it takes to do a show and how precarious the perch is they each sit upon.
Identifying yourself as a Leno fan or a Letterman fan has been a kind of Rorschach test in different circles for years. As if to like one is to necessarily dislike the other. The thing is I like Leno. I like Letterman. I like Conan for crying out loud. I’m a fan of Fallon and Kimmel. I’m happy Seth Meyers is joining the ranks. I may prefer one’s sensibilities to another and I think some do a better show than some of the others but I like them all. One reason I like all of them is that I’m a fan of the genre. And I respect anyone who does it, does it well and keeps grinding it out year after year long after he has to for financial reasons. The work ethic and the love of the work are inspiring. Because I learned a long time ago that even doing something you love still takes hard work to make it work.
It’s a safe bet that Leno is done for good with The Tonight Show. But I wouldn’t be quick to think he won’t show up soon and often elsewhere. Like most stand up comics, it’s in his nature to keep grinding. I love that.
Later tonight I’ll post some links and recommended reading for more on the Leno/Letterman/Conan/Tonight Show dramas over the years.