news Sports Opinions arts variety interact Wildcat On-Line QuickNav

The late night showdown

By Tony Carnevale
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 29, 1999
Send comments to:


Arizona Daily Wildcat

photo courtesy of NBC When he's not in front of the cameras at NBC, Jay Leno likes to cruise with Hell's Angels.

The battle for television ratings is an important one. Sitcoms, tense prime-time dramas, and struggling TV writers all live or die based on exactly how many millions of people tune in each night. The goriest front of the ratings war is undoubtedly the late-night conflict. Books have been written and movies made about the blood feud between CBS's late-night variety show, "The Late Show with David Letterman," and NBC's "Tonight Show with Jay Leno." It's for this very reason that Jay Leno is currently talking to college papers around the country - an attempt to "get in touch" with college culture, and maintain his show's strong ratings in our demographic. According to Leno, however, the rivalry between him and Letterman isn't personal.

"I like Dave a lot," Leno told Catalyst. "I'm a big fan of his show, and I like to think maybe they watch our show once in a while."

They undoubtedly do. "The Tonight Show" has been consistently trouncing Letterman in the ratings since 1995, when Leno interviewed Hugh Grant in the wake of the British actor's rendezvous with a hooker. Before then, Leno's "Tonight Show" was the underdog.

"In our darkest days, when we were going up against Dave and we weren't doing very well, people would still say to me, 'I like Letterman, but I also like your jokes,'" Leno said. "Okay, I thought, even if they don't like me, they like the jokes. They like the product that I'm selling. Always have a product." In Leno's case, that product is a combination of scripted comedy segments, celebrity interviews, and musical performances.

Though he's managed to carve out a comfortable niche as a sort of comedy salesman, it wasn't always that way. Jay Leno started out in the late '60s as a college student in Boston.

"When I was 19 years old," he said, "I was working in strip joints telling jokes. All my friends were at Wendy's or something, covered in peanut oil, and I was working at strip joints."

Leno did not specify whether his coworkers were also covered in peanut oil. Even so, the sheer joy of performing comedy was enough to sustain him, which was important, because it was all he had.

"When you start out in show business," said Leno, "it's like being a homeless person. When you're 19, 20, 22, 23, that's actually kind of fun. It's not fun if you used to have a house. Then it's real depressing."

For those of us who aspire to join the homeless-person/show-business profession, Jay Leno suggests that the most important element to getting hired may be just showing up.

"A kid that drives across the country to meet me," he said, "is probably going to get more of my attention than someone that just sends me a note saying, 'Please write back how I get started in show business.' When [I] actually get a chance to look at you - assuming you're not a psycho - and see that you're normal, and you're polite, and you seem to have a grasp of how things go... I'm not saying you'll get hired all the time, but you'll probably get an interview."

And you might be drafted to fight a war which makes Kosovo look like a field trip.