Jay Leno brushed aside criticism from competitors who believe his fall primetime show is not only a cynical move by NBC but bad for television. Speaking to a small gathering of reporters in New York on Tuesday, Leno said “I’m a big boy” and he’s not affected by the naysayers who doubt the viability of his nightly primetime show this fall. Earlier on Tuesday, in fact, ABC latenight host Jimmy Kimmel made a joke at Leno’s expense at the network’s upfront presentation to advertisers, saying NBC was so desperate to hold onto Leno that it was willing to “destroy the network” in the process. Leno chuckled when he heard Kimmel’s comments.
“As long as it was funny,” said Leno. “Trash talking is a part of the competition. You do your best. It gives you the impetus to prove them wrong.”
Leno can’t give too many specifics on his new fall show, other than to say it’ll likely average two guests a night and include some sort of standing comedy bit in the second half-hour to encourage viewers to stay tuned for their local 11 p.m. newscast. Leno’s signature Headlines and Jay Walking bits will probably fill Mondays and Tuesdays; he’s not sure about the frequency of musical acts. Mostly, Leno seems juiced by the opportunity to get a jump start on topical jokes. “Before the parade of white guys starts, I’ll be out there,” Leno says, in reference to the other latenight hosts.
He also downplayed any potential battle for guests with Conan O’Brien, who will take over The Tonight Show after Leno steps down May 29. “There are really only 18 guests who would make a difference,” says Leno of A-listers like Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and Brad Pitt. Gibson, along with Billy Crystal and Arnold Schwarzenegger, will appear on The Tonight Show during Leno’s final week.
The veteran comedian is not under any illusion that he’ll immediately succeed in his new 10 p.m. timeslot. “When I took over The Tonight Show, we lost against Letterman [for nearly two years],” he recalls. “If you lose, you work harder. We’re not expecting to blow the doors off CSI. But maybe we’ll catch up to them in the summer when they’re in reruns.”
NBC won’t say what adults 18-49 rating Leno will need to achieve to stay profitable; instead, the suits insist he’ll be viewed differently than other shows in primetime. Unlike the typical scripted series that airs for 22 weeks, Leno will be judged on a 52-week basis since he’ll be delivering original content most of the year (save a few weeks during the Olympics). “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” says NBC’s head of research Alan Wurtzel. “Leno is the quintessential counter-programming. A lot of people are looking for a real alternative. We are very bullish [about the show's future].”
Leno wasn’t particularly sold on the title, however. He wanted Weeknights with Jay Leno but the NBC brass feared the show would be nicknamed Weeknights so the network went with The Jay Leno Show, instead.
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