Jay Leno will leave The Tonight Show (again) next spring. What's he doing after that? More stand-up, he tells The New York Times, but no TV — for now. "I've done this job for a long time and I really enjoy it," he tells the paper. "Would I do it again? Believe me, the phone's not ringing off the hook. It will be nice if people seem interested. But I'll let it sit where it is."
Even if no one is calling right now (doubtful), it's hard to believe that Leno — who hasn't hinted at retirement since the Conan O'Brien Tonight Show succession plan was announced in 2004 — will be off our screens for too long. So what are his options? We weigh the possibilities.
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1. Prime time
Just kidding! No one wants to do that again. Let's move on.
2. Syndicated daytime
Leno's mass-appeal humor fits with the daytime crowd — not to mention, syndication is an easy way to own a piece of the show yourself. But after being the king of late night for so long, Leno might look at daytime as a downgrade. Plus: Daytime is a female-dominated field and men rarely succeed without a niche like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz (see: Anderson Cooper, Jeff Probst).
With streaming sites aiming for more original content than ever, Leno could be a pioneer of sorts here. Yeah, his core fan base isn't exactly tech-savvy, but hey, neither is Larry King's, and he's been enjoying his time on Hulu. And while Leno is old school, unlike proud technophobe David Letterman, he has never shown an aversion to joining us here in the 21st century.
Fox is the obvious call, and Steve Pruett, chairman of the Fox affiliate board, told The New York Post two weeks ago that "if Fox were to present the right business plan, the affiliate board would be interested." Emphasis on "business plan." Fox tried to land O'Brien in 2010, but ultimately chose to stick with its affiliates' money-making syndicated sitcoms at 11 p.m. after determining that it didn't have the deep pockets to sign O'Brien. A Fox launch for O'Brien was estimated at $70 million, and Leno would cost way more than that. Besides, if Fox were really serious about getting into the late-night game with the big boys, it would be far more practical to launch a brand-new franchise with a younger, thus cheaper, star than the established aging Leno (he will be 64 next year).
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How ironic would it be if Leno were to follow Conan to cable? But not impossible. TBS would never touch him with a 10-foot pole, but there are a gazillion other network options, like, say USA. It's owned by NBCUniversal and Leno's non-edginess would complement the cabler's "sunny skies" theme.
6. Reality car series
What if Leno threw us all a curveball and left the talk show game altogether? The man loves his cars, so why not just make Jay Leno's Garage an actual docu-show? He can scout for new toys, visit other car geeks and pimp out his rides. Or maybe he could take over for the retired guys on NPR's Car Talk or just join Top Gear — a hosting gig he turned down in 2008 because he feared it wouldn't be successful in America. Oops.
Jay Leno as the new Larry King? Don't count that out. Former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker — he who engineered and botched the whole Leno-O'Brien prime-time/Tonight Show debacle — is now at CNN, revamping it at near-breakneck speed and poaching people from left and right. While Zucker's relationship with O'Brien is possibly irrevocably broken, it's unclear how — if at all — damaged his relationship with Leno is. If he could convince Leno to do prime time on NBC, who's to say he won't be able to persuade Leno to jump to a big-time company like CNN? Sure, Leno wouldn't exactly put the "News" in the Cable News Network, but maybe a loose entertainment talk show is what CNN needs to curb its sliding ratings.
What do you think Leno will do?