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Jay Leno says good night to 'Tonight Show': His writers look back

President Barack Obama, left, appears on

President Barack Obama, left, appears on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" on Thursday, March 19, 2009 in Burbank, Calif. Credit: AP / Gerald Herbert

Mike Colasuonno was born and raised in Hicksville, but at some point he decided to head west, where he met the host of "The Tonight Show." Long story shortened: Colasuonno spent the next 18 years of his life writing jokes, monologues, sketches and bits for this host, and did well enough to buy a stake in a minor league baseball team, the Orange County Flyers. TV's great that way.

Jay Leno did well by Colasuonno, too, and a lot of others -- mostly guys, but also women -- who have usually spoken warmly of the "boss" over the years: indefatigable, funniest guy in the room, generous, fundamentally decent, can take a punch. They mostly say they haven't paid attention to stories about how he jobbed Conan O'Brien out of "The Tonight Show," or about how he's not as talented as David Letterman, or how he's now been cast aside for younger, cooler Jimmy Fallon. They don't pay attention to the buzz, negative or otherwise, because the boss doesn't, or says he doesn't. Too much to do. No time to do it. Jokes have to be written. Gigs to do in Vegas or Hermosa Beach or wherever.

"He's a really good guy," says Colasuonno, who left the show a couple of years ago. "We always had a good time. He's always got your back. He always makes you laugh."

The people who have worked for Leno aren't for the most part Harvard-educated types who once edited the Lampoon. Like the boss, they have the everyman touch and know the sort of jokes that millions of mostly average people will laugh at each night, when they basically want to forget about the day that just ended.

Some of those viewers live in Hicksville, or in Wichita, Bloomington, or Evansville -- viewers with not a lot in common other than loyally watching Leno tell jokes for nearly 22 years.

Like Colasuonno, they happen to offer clues about Leno's enduring appeal and why his "Tonight Show" has been the late-night leader for so long.

"The get-no-respect issue? Made no difference to us," says Joe Medeiros, Leno's longtime head writer, also from the East Coast (Valley Forge, Pa.). "It was always do your work and go home. It never impacted us at all. We're not Hollywood people. The gratification came with doing the job every day."



When Leno leaves "The Tonight Show" this Thursday, there will be no honorary parades down Lankershim Boulevard near the Universal City "Tonight" studio. He is leaving quietly, and by most accounts without bitterness or remorse. But you don't spend 22 years -- 30-plus, counting the substitute host ones -- on TV's most famous stage unless 4 million or 5 million viewers have liked you enough to keep you there.

What precisely was that appeal? The answer is complicated. Most of us came to believe we knew everything about Jay: son of immigrants, his father an insurance salesman, was a onetime boxer, his brother was a Vietnam vet, now both deceased. We know he's married to Mavis, is mildly dyslexic, doesn't like coffee, loves cars -- owns fleets of them -- and manufactures jokes like a Ford assembly line spits out F-series trucks. We also know he's wealthy -- conservatively worth $250 million -- but assume money doesn't really matter all that much to him, either. (This is what Leno once said on the subject: "Money can't make you happy, but if you're already happy, it'll make you happier.")

Mostly, though, we thought of his work ethic -- he's a man who regards sleep (four hours a night) as a nuisance.

"You know that phrase that's been attached to Jay," says Rick Ludwin, NBC's former chief of late night and now a consultant to the network. " 'The hardest-working man in show business.' "

Ludwin and others have long made note of what this labor has yielded: an industrial-strength nightly monologue filled with a couple of dozen jokes that are delivered as skillfully and effortlessly as anyone has ever done on TV. To watch a Leno monologue is to fall into a raging torrent of jokes, all topical and spun off something that happened in the world hours before. It's a hit-or-miss experience -- there have been thousands of groaners over the years -- but you, the viewer, have invariably been guaranteed at least one, or, on good nights even two that are laugh-out-loud funny.

"I remember when Johnny [Carson] in his monologue would say things like, 'I went into McDonalds," says Ludwin, "and Ed would say, 'What? You went into McDonald's?!' and Johnny would say, 'I went in to set up this joke.' Well, Jay actually once worked at McDonald's."



Of all the words in the language, "work" is the one that has best matched Leno over these years: a relentless blue-collar ethic that has powered show after show, year after year, and when not in front of a camera, in front of live audiences. (As Leno once said, "If you want to hear the jokes, I will come to where you are and do them.")

He landed his first appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1977, then spent the next seven years scratching to get back on. When he finally did, as substitute host in the early '80s, he essentially never left.

In a profile by Los Angeles Times writer Paul Brownfield in 2000, Leno tried to explain why so many fellow comics -- and eventually critics -- turned against him: "There's nothing funnier to me than sitting in Jerry's Deli listening to a bunch of guys whine about how clever and inventive they were, and [how] the networks were scared, and now they are out of a job. You're either doing it or you're not doing it. There's a bit of that New England Calvinist thing there [for me], where you just go, 'Shut up and do the job.' "

And now the job is finished. Why did so many viewers like Leno for so long, and why will they miss him? Because there's a little bit of the Calvinist thing in them, too: middle-class strivers who are trying to get through the day. He understood the people who watched him because, on some very fundamental level, he is one of them.

Colasuonno says Leno "liked doing what he did, and he had a chance to do it. I don't have any other psychological insight into that.

"What'll he do after [he leaves the show]? He'll work."


Leno's best moments

How to sort through 22 years of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" by way of establishing the best or most memorable shows or moments? In fact, this isn't so easy because one of the hallmarks of Leno's "Tonight" was homogeneity over this long, successful run. Viewers usually knew what they were going to get, and they were rarely disappointed. (Or, as Leno himself liked to say: "Good food at reasonable prices.") But there were some major moments -- here are just five.

5. Barack Obama appears (March 19, 2009) He's the first sitting president to be a guest on a late-night show.

4. Paul Newman (Aug. 5, 2005) Newman was in town for a big race in Long Beach, but for his first race, he must race "The Tonight Show" host in the first "NBC Grand Prix." He and Leno hop into a couple of tricked-out go-karts and race around the studio, as Newman beats the host by a few car lengths.

3. Angie Harmon's proposal (March 13, 2000) Leno asks the actress about her love life; she hesitates, saying she doesn't like to talk about her personal life. And then out walks her boyfriend, Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn. He asks, "Will you marry me?" She answers, "Yes," and they were wed a year later (and now have three daughters).

2. Hey, what was Hugh Grant thinking? (July 10, 1995) Grant made his first public appearance after his arrest on charges of soliciting a prostitute. Leno: "Let me start with question No. 1: What the hell were you thinking?" This interview -- which got a huge viewership -- was the beginning of the "Tonight Show" turnaround, from second place behind "Late Show With David Letterman" to first.

1. Leno's tribute to his father, Angelo (Aug. 22, 1994) Leno gave a moving eulogy to his father, Angelo, who had died the week before at age 83. At the conclusion of Leno's finest moment, he talked about how his father had bucked him up during those tense months the year before, when he was nearly fired from "Tonight."


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