Jay’s Garage, which showcases Leno’s love of classic cars and other vehicles, has been airing on CNBC since 2015 and will start another season this month. He continues to do stand-up comedy, booking (at least before Covid-19) a couple hundred dates a year.
Even with all of that, today marks a particularly important chapter, with Leno returning to the daily TV host chair, on Fox’s syndicated reboot of You Bet Your Life. Stepping into the role made famous by Groucho Marx in the show’s previous incarnation, Leno presides over the game, mostly in the crowd-work mode he popularized in Tonight Show segments like “Jaywalking.”
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In an interview with Deadline, Leno said the attraction to him was the notion of trying to aim a new project straight down the middle. “Every comedy show now is just divided by politics,” he said. “When I started The Tonight Show, we used to get credit for making fun of both sides equally. That lasted only so long, and then people started yelling at you for not taking one side or the other.”
You Bet Your Life, whose 180-episode run will be shot over 12 weeks, is expressly intended as an easygoing viewing experience. Former Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks is reteaming with Leno as his on-air (non-musical) sidekick. The stakes are low, with contestants able to win at most $5,000.
“It’s fascinating. If you don’t bring up politics, you find you have a lot in common with people you don’t agree with politically,” Leno said. TV station owners sparked to the concept, he added, because they don’t want to “alienate half their audience.”
In a sense, the syndicated show is Leno’s shot at exploiting late-night material, in the vein of Lip Sync Battle or Carpool Karaoke. Even David Letterman’s beloved “Stupid Pet Tricks” segment is being shopped as a series.
“Almost every late-night talk show is a spinoff of the original Tonight Show,” Leno said. “They all have a desk and a stage and a band. They all kind of do that. This is almost exactly like the old Groucho show, because that show was about Groucho talking to people. There wasn’t any buffer in between. And people seemed to like that.” NBC aired the original show from 1947 to 1961.
Leno said he always considered himself a “populist.” Unlike other comics, who wanted to target niches, he pursued more of an “old-school” approach, booking venues like Oral Roberts University. “They don’t want the sex jokes, of course,” he said, but the reward is “getting the most number of laughs.” That logic has served him well in television, Leno said. “Every TV show now has half the audience it used to because half the audience is mad at the other half,” he said.
The new series will air on most stations between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., adjacent to local and national newscasts, meaning it has a chance of being a “light-hearted distraction,” Leno said.
As far as stand-up comedy, an arena torpedoed by the pandemic and roiled by changing socio-political expectations, Leno conceded, “I don’t do a lot of politics there either. As soon as you do, it’s [audience members saying] ‘Booo!! Boo!’ Really? I mean, it’s a joke. And then you have to argue with people in the audience. To me, you sort of do the material.”
Asked about Conan O’Brien’s farewell on TBS, where his nightly talk show ended in the spring, he mused, “He’s very good. People get mad at me because somehow I …. It’s a network decision,” he said, alluding to the high drama a decade ago around the NBC late-night block. O’Brien was anointed by NBC as the successor to Leno, but the network reversed course, leaving O’Brien without a network home (but with tens of millions of dollars for his trouble). “They take the show away and then they go, ‘Will you come back?’ And you go, ‘Really? Is that what you want? Fine.’ I certainly hold no ill will. It’s a business.”
As You Bet Your Life production kicked in over the summer, Leno went viral thanks to a video clip shared by TV writer Spike Feresten. The astonishing footage showed him appearing to cling to the outside of a moving plane. “We did it as a gag,” he shrugged. “My friend was sleeping in the plane, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I crawl out the front and bang on the windshield?’ It worked. He was going. ‘What?! Why is Leno outside the plane?!'”
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