"You can't really do something like this again," says Leno, who spent most of his 21 years on The Tonight Show as TV's most-watched late-night star. "Because if you're not No. 1, you'll get 'Oh, Jay sucks, he's not No. 1.' And once you do this, you don't really want to do The Tonight Show Lite."
With two weeks left before his final show, Leno sat down with TV Guide Magazine for an exit interview of sorts. Of course, he made a similar round of chats in 2009, when he left the show the first time. ("I'll see you when I get fired from my next job," he quips.)
But this time, he says, "It feels right. You get to a certain age and you're the old guy. For me to be talking about rap music and things, that seems a bit silly. Plus, [new Tonight host] Jimmy [Fallon] is 24 years younger than I am. When I see him doing duets with Justin Timberlake and things like that, I can't do that. That's not what I do."
In a wide-ranging talk, Leno explains why he's keeping his exit low-key, gives his take on 2009's botched Tonight transition and answers his critics (including rival host Jimmy Kimmel).
TV Guide Magazine: Is it odd to be leaving, even though you're still No. 1?
Jay Leno: I'd rather leave when I was No. 1 than sneak out the door when you're No. 3. At some point it becomes diminishing returns. This is all I've done for 22 years. You have to go home and write 14 minutes [of a monologue] every single night, no matter what happens. If there's a death in your family, OK, then you have to go write 14 minutes of jokes right after that. It will be nice to go back to being a comic again for a while. I don't know when the right time to leave is. Is it when you're 71? 68? 84? I've never gone out on a school night for the past 22 years. Look, if NBC did not have a guy like Jimmy in the bullpen waiting, I'd probably be here another year or two.
TV Guide Magazine: Have any post-Tonight Show offers interested you?
Leno: I've been passing on a lot of things because I don't want to do another version of this. I don't want to do the Tonight Show somewhere else, when the Tonight Show name is over here. I might do something; I just don't want to do this. And I'm not going to go challenge any of my friends, or whatever they are, in late night as well. At least not in the foreseeable future.
TV Guide Magazine: What about doing a show on CNN or any of these other options?
Leno: I say hello to Jeff Zucker and suddenly I'm going to CNN. It's very flattering to be this age and people are coming at you with all these offers. You go, "Wow, that's a lot of money." But it's hard to re-create this moment in time. For the last 22 years this has been great. I don't know if I'd want to take a chance on it not being as powerful.
TV Guide Magazine: What do you think of what your pal Jerry Seinfeld has done since he left his show? He hasn't done another sitcom.
Leno: Jerry is sort of my role model on this, and we've talked about this. He seems to have done it the right way. I did his [web series] Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee the other day and it was great fun.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you have a sense of duty to keep doing this for your fans?
Leno: It's nice that people say they're going to miss me. You know, if you don't believe the bad stuff, it's not fair to believe the good stuff either. Everybody's replaceable.
TV Guide Magazine: In 2009, you ended your last episode in subdued fashion by bringing out the kids born to staffers throughout the show's run. Do you want to make a bigger deal time?
Leno: No, it will probably a slightly smaller deal, actually. Because you left once already, you don't want to act like you didn't leave before — "Oh, forget that time!"
TV Guide Magazine: How do you feel compared to when Conan O'Brien took over?
Leno: This time I was asked. Last time I was told. I came into work one day, and, "All right, in five years you're fired." Who gets told they're going to be fired in five years? It's hilarious. If you don't see the humor in it — "You're doing a great job, and five years from now you're fired." This time, my last deal was through September 2014. That sounds about right. I'll be 64, Johnny [Carson] was 66.
TV Guide Magazine: Have you been too much of a good company guy to NBC?
Leno: This is my home. The only place I've ever worked. Regardless of who's running the ship, the middle and lower level people have always been the same. I don't know why loyalty is seen as so bad. People beat me up for it. But who hasn't gotten yelled at by their boss? Who hasn't been mistreated by their company?
TV Guide Magazine: NBC's Bob Greenblatt says he has ideas but hasn't pitched them to you yet out of respect. Do you want to stick around?
Leno: We'll wait and see until it's over. I still have an office [in Burbank, down the street from NBC's Universal City headquarters] for the next couple of years. At some point I'll sit down with him. Will I be Peter Pan in the new musical?
TV Guide Magazine: A lot of people claim to have insight into what you're thinking. What do you think people get wrong?
Leno: People think that because you like to work, "Oh, Jay can't stay off TV." I remember people always saying that "Dave [Letterman] will retire, but you'll have to drag Leno off." That always made me laugh because I don't really think that way. The real trick is to make show business money and lead a normal life and then you'll be fine.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you have any regrets? Ever wonder what would have happened if you went to ABC in 2009?
Leno: No, I don't really do that. I'm lucky to have gotten as far as I have and I'm very grateful for it. And everything past 1997 is gravy. So no, I don't say, "I should have done that," or "I would be bigger if I had done this." If I wanted to do those things, I would have done them.
TV Guide Magazine: Why 1997?
Leno: That's when we started winning. I was doing Johnny's show on Johnny's stage. I was doing it the way Johnny did it. And as any critic will tell you, I'm not Johnny. We rebuilt the set, like you're right in a club. You shake hands, touch the people. And that made the show a little warmer, a little friendlier. That was the real turning point. People think it was Hugh Grant, and that was part of it. But we were able to make the show more my personality and what I like to do.
TV Guide Magazine: Did anything get harder over the years?
Leno: As you get older it's harder to talk to 17-year-old supermodels because now you're a creepy old guy.
TV Guide Magazine: What about the monologue? As the country has grown more polarized politically, is it more difficult to appeal to both sides?
Leno: You always put the joke first. A lot of times I see comedians put their political belief in front of the joke. If you're going to be a comedian, tell jokes. The real trick is, especially with politicians, I never question their patriotism and I never question their basic decency, I just question their judgment.
TV Guide Magazine: Any other tough moments?
Leno: One day I get a videocassette in the mail. I put it in the machine, and it's a guy with a machine gun. "Jay Leno, you f---ing asshole," he has my picture and shoots it with the machine gun. "I'm going to kill you!" [Leno says authorities investigated and determined the man was not a threat.]
TV Guide Magazine: What happens when the show ends? You're immediately back on the road?
Leno: The next day, I'm in Florida.
TV Guide Magazine: Not even taking a day off?
Leno: People don't understand. Doing standup for an hour and a half, it's actually quite relaxing. I like working live. I don't do videos. I don't do CDs or DVDs. If people want to hear the jokes, I will come to your house and do them.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you think once you and David Letterman aren't in direct competition that might change your relationship?
Leno: I don't think so, it's the same. I don't think it changes anything, no.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there a chance you might show up on his show?
Leno: That could happen, why not? It's certainly a possibility. Some of my best moments were with Dave. I wouldn't rule it out.
TV Guide Magazine: What happened between you and Jimmy Kimmel?
Leno: He comes from radio, and in radio you pick a fight. He was a guy I thought that I would get along with well. Blue collar, like me, half-Italian, funny. I remember once when he first got his show, he said, "We're going to do a comedy show, not like Leno's show." And I called him up and said, "What's up? What's that all about?" And he was kind of rude. So for the next couple of years I was always the punching bag. Then when the writers' strike came, he called me and said, I'd like to be friends, will you come on my show? So he came on my show, I went on his show, it was fine. And then there was talk of me maybe going to ABC and I called him once and said, "You cool with that if that happens?" That didn't happen and I stayed here. And then he started up again and I just left it at that. The guys that are comics I don't have a problem with. But he's not traditionally a standup. When Dave would do a joke about me, it would be funny. And when I pick up The New York Post and it says, "Kimmel says, F--- Leno!" well, I don't know, is that a joke?
TV Guide Magazine: What's to come of the talk show as we know it?
Leno: We used to have appointment TV. We don't live in that world anymore. The numbers that keep us No. 1 now would have had us fired 20 years ago. The dilemma is, these shows are cheap to do and if they hit, there's money to be made. But there are so many of these shows now that you've diluted the water.
TV Guide Magazine: Does it bother you that the critics and award shows are more enamored with other things?
Leno: When you play football, who do you tackle? The guy with the ball. And to me, the Tonight Show is the ball. I used to be a "hip, bright comic." And then all of a sudden I was an awful, terrible person. But I did get the Tonight Show.