When Jay Leno hands the keys to The Tonight Show, the late night vehicle that's been his home for the past 17 years, over to Conan O'Brien tonight, he's not going to toss in any sage wisdom along with them.
"I don't need to give Conan advice," Leno told Neil Strauss for our latest issue, on newsstands now. "Conan's very good at what he does. Conan was a writer before he was a performer. So when he started the show, his performing skills weren't particularly honed, but the writing was sharp. He was saying clever things; he just hadn't learned how to say them in the physically funniest way yet. His show has been number one [in its time slot] for the past 15 years. So I'm sure he'll make that transition fine."
Friday night marks Leno's departure from The Tonight Show, as he passes the torch to O'Brien (the new Tonight host is even Leno's last scheduled guest). The transition has been a lengthy one — Conan's move to 11:30 was first announced five years ago. "Here at NBC, they have this thing that they like you to leave before you peak out and you're over the top. And that's what they wanted to do with me," Leno says. "I said, 'Guys, whatever you want to do.' I've never been one of these guys that breaks up with a girl and goes, 'But why? If I do this, will you go out with me?' I'm more like, 'Babe, if you don't want to see me, I'm gone. It's over. Thank you.' "
But as his Tonight departure approached, Leno tells Rolling Stone that he realized he still enjoyed his gig (and NBC, of course, still enjoyed his ratings pull). After exploring a nightly 8 p.m. slot, Leno and NBC considered something a little later. "I realized there hasn't really been a successful 10:00 show launched in probably five or six or seven years," Leno says. "CSI and Law & Order — those are all good shows, and they do very well, but any new ones that come in just fall by the wayside. And 10 seemed to be turning into the new 11:30. Even people in their 20s go, 'Oh, man, I can't stay up till 12 anymore. I gotta get up. I carpool, and I'm working two jobs.' So I said, 'Well, how about 10? We'll try and do something different from what The Tonight Show is. Whatever you want to pay me is fine.' "
Leno is cautiously optimistic about his prime-time chances. Other observers are less generous — Sumner Redstone, whose Viacom owns CSI home CBS, went as far as to say that the crime drama would "beat the hell" out of Leno.
"Oh, that's fine. I'm going to go with that one," Leno says. "They will win. Hopefully we'll catch them on the reruns. It's like a Cadillac costs more than a Volkswagen, but if you sell enough Volkswagens, you succeed because of volume."
To read Neil Strauss' Rolling Stone interview with Jay Leno, check out our latest issue, on newsstands now.
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