Would Leno pull a Johnny Carson?
Since the New York Times reported that NBC executives were mulling replacing Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon at the Tonight Show and moving it from Burbank to New York, it has been unclear how such a transition would be handled with Leno's contract, which doesn't expire until September 2014, or even if that would be a smart move on NBC's part in the first place. Leno is no stranger to late night television drama. His initial promotion to Tonight Show came after a very public showdown for the post between him and David Letterman, now at CBS's Late Show. More recently, an NBC attempt to replace him at 11:35 p.m. with Conan O'Brien and move him to a 10 p.m. prime time slot was disastrous; Leno was able to reclaim his Tonight Show throne in a matter of months, to the scorn of many involved in the entertainment community.
However, if this is the third strike for Leno, and he leaves the Tonight Show for good, he will need to figure out his retirement, as he will be only 64 at the end of his contract. His brief foray into prime time notwithstanding, Leno has hosted the Tonight Show since 1992. However, it appears unlikely that he will follow his predecessor's example. Johnny Carson famously retired from show business entirely at the end of his Tonight Show tenure at the age of 66.
"He saw what it's like when you are so desperate to get in the limelight, and he didn't want that. He was going to try have a different life," says Laurence Leamer, the author of "King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson."
"He didn't want to end up like Bob Hope, who was wheeled out in a wheel chair [at his 90th birthday television special}."
Host Jay Leno stands by his Mercedes SLR in Santa Monica, Calif. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Jay Leno poses against an antique fire truck at his private garage of classic cars in Burbank, Calif. (Chris Pizzello/AP)
Carson embraced retirement, albeit in a fashion his financial success secured. He loved boating, particularly on his 130-foot yacht. He also built an expansive private tennis facility across the street from his home, where if you wanted to be invited back, "You played a good game, and you lost," says Leamer. Aside from barely a handful of public appearances, Carson stayed out of the public entirely.
Peter Jones, a filmmaker who made "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night" (for which he interviewed a number of comedians including Fallon and Leno), doesn't see Leno completely abandoning entertainment.
"His real love is performing stand-up," says Jones. "He could do his stand-up, drive his motorcycles around and be perfectly content." Jones, who lives in L.A., adds that he frequently sees Leno around town, often hosting obscure motorcycle and auto events. "He loves people saying, 'Hi Jay!'" As for Carson, Jones adds: "Johnny? Nuh uh."
When things fell through at the Tonight Show for Conan O'Brien, he found a home on TBS at 11 p.m. It's been reported that some Fox executives would also like to bring Jay Leno on board for a new 11 p.m. show.
Unlike Leno—who has been sniping at NBC execs in his monologue ever since rumors of his departure came out—Carson's decision to step down was viewed to be completely his.
"He wanted to go out on top. He didn't want people to see him aging," says Jones.
"He was a very peculiar man, but he had the discipline to never come back," says Leamer.
Carson did continue writing jokes for his friends (the monologue was what he missed most about his show) and occasionally faxed some over to Letterman, who he favored over Leno, without expecting any recognition. "I can't imagine Jay Leno or Letterman doing that, believe me," says Leamer.