Jay Leno on leaving "The Tonight Show"

The former Tonight Show host talks in depth with Steve Kroft about losing his NBC late-night perch twice

The following is a script from "Jay Leno" which aired on Jan. 26, 2014, and was rebroadcast on June 15, 2014. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. Ruth Streeter, producer.

Every now and then there are milestones and transitions worth noting and one of them took place earlier this year: the departure of Jay Leno from "The Tonight Show."

It's part of a demographic shift that is beginning to affect millions of baby boomers who are being pushed aside to make way for a younger generation. The inevitable changing of the guard that also reflects a change in tastes, sensibilities and values. As one of the country's most influential comedians, Leno has been part of the national conversation during four presidencies, and a central figure in one of the most bizarre television debacles of the past 20 years.

Jay Leno goes home - Jay Leno takes 60 Minutes on a tour of Andover, Mass., and shows his high school, his childhood home, and the McDonald's where he once flipped burgers

We did our first interview with him back in 1992 when he was about to take over "The Tonight Show." We did another with Jay -- and his wife Mavis -- for our story last January, just days before his final broadcast. We talked about everything that had happened, what Jay wants to do next, and his current state of mind.

Jay Leno: I always tell new people in show business. I say, "Look, show business pays you a lot of money, because eventually you're gonna get screwed. And when you get screwed, you will have this pile of money off to the side already." And they go, "OK, OK. OK, you ready? You ready?" "I got screwed." "You got the pile of money?" "Yeah, I'm fine." I mean, that's the way it works. I mean, you know, that's-- that's the way these things are. That's the way it happens.

LenowithWife.jpg
Jay Leno and wife, Mavis
CBS News
And no one knows it better than Jay Leno. He's been in show business for more than 40 years, earned hundreds of millions of dollars and is more than familiar with getting screwed. He almost never complains about it unless it's in the form of a joke.

"I always tell new people in show business. I say, 'Look, show business pays you a lot of money, because eventually you're gonna get screwed. And when you get screwed, you will have this pile of money off to the side already.'"

[Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show:" In fact a couple of weeks ago President Obama called me told me personally if I like my current job I can keep my current job... and I believed it. I believed it.]

On February 6th, Jay Leno surrendered "The Tonight Show" he inherited from Johnny Carson 22 years ago. Like Carson he went out on top, though not under circumstances of his choosing. But he's survived in a cutthroat business largely on his own wits and talent.

Steve Kroft: It's just you, right? You don't have an agent? You don't have a manager?

Jay Leno: No, I don't have an agent or a manager, but the nice thing is I get the unfiltered truth this way. No one says, "Look, Leno sucks. He stinks. We want him out of here." "Jay, they're very happy with you, but they want you to change--" well-- well-- I get it right from the horse's mouth, you know? And that's-- that's what I prefer.

[Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show:" Did you paint that? Wow.]

He has never been the critics' favorite, particularly in New York and Los Angeles where some find him bland an unadventurous.

[Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show:" There's a controversy that won't go a way. This "Duck Dynasty" thing gays are very upset with "Duck Dynasty"... you know who is even more upset, gay ducks. They are furious.]

But neither has Leno gotten his due. He's always had a feel for the audience in the middle of the country, and outside the major urban areas.

Steve Kroft: How did you do it?

Jay Leno: Well, I think it's-- you're trying to appeal to the whole spectrum. If you look at the monologue for every smart, insightful joke, there's a goofy joke and a silly joke and a fun joke then a clever joke. That's the trick, you try to have something for everybody.

Steve Kroft: And it's worked for you?

Jay Leno: Seems to.

But there's been plenty of turbulence along the way.

It began in 2004, when Conan O'Brien -- Leno's young heir apparent -- threatened to leave and go to Fox if NBC didn't promise to give him "The Tonight Show." The network agreed to what it hoped would be an orderly succession plan in which Conan would replace Leno in 2009. Leno was one of the last people to find out.

Jay Leno: First time, I got blindsided.

Steve Kroft: What did they tell you?

Jay Leno: Oh, "You're out. You got-- you know, gonna go with this and ba, ba, ba." "Oh, OK." And I went, "OK."

Steve Kroft: "You're out. You're fired. You got four more years."

Jay Leno: Yeah, that was basically it, sure.

Steve Kroft: Did you ask them why they had decided to do this?

Jay Leno: No.

Steve Kroft: You didn't?

Jay Leno: No. I mean, "Why?" No.

Steve Kroft: No, I don't mean like--

Jay Leno: "Why?"

Steve Kroft: No, I mean--

Jay Leno: "Why are you doing this?"

Steve Kroft: No, I mean, kind of like, "OK, so why? What's the--"

Jay Leno: You know, you have a girl says--

Steve Kroft: "--logic behind this?"

Jay Leno: --"I don't want to see you anymore." "Why?" You know? She doesn't want to see you anymore, OK?

Steve Kroft: They didn't say that. They said, "We-- we don't want to see you after four more years."

Jay Leno: "You're fired four years from right now." I mean, isn't that hilarious? I mean, it's-- it's got-- what's more show bizzy than that? What's the funny-- "You're fired four years from now. Get out in four years."

But it wasn't funny for NBC four years later when it was time for Leno to go. He was still a strong No. 1, and very much in demand. Desperate to keep him from going to another network, and saddled with disastrous primetime ratings the network offered him a 10 o'clock time slot on its schedule.

[Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show:" People asking, "Oh, what are you going to do after the last show? Are you going to go on vacation that kind of stuff?" Actually I'm going to go to a secluded spot where no one can find me. NBC primetime. Of course we're not really leaving we're coming back at 10 in September. I'll admit it's a gamble, it's a gamble... I'm betting everything that NBC will still be around in three months -- that is not given.]

[Announcer: It's the Jay Leno Show.]

Leno's ten o'clock show tanked and so did the ratings of "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien, which dropped out of first place. NBC panicked when the network's affiliates began clamoring for Leno's return to his 11:30 time slot, and NBC agreed.

Jay Leno: I said, "Sure." I said at the time I was gonna do a half hour. And I believe Conan was gonna follow later. He didn't want to do that. He quit. And so they gave me the show back.

Steve Kroft: Were you surprised?

Jay Leno: Stunned. "Oh, all right. All right, fine. Yes." I-- I said, "Really?"

What was supposed to be an orderly transition instead turned into an unscripted reality show that played out every night on late night television.

Conan O'Brien on "The Tonight Show": Hosting "The Tonight Show" has been fulfillment of a life long dream for me. And I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it too.

Steve Kroft: You were the bad guy. You were portrayed as being the bad guy.

Jay Leno: Yeah, I didn't quite understand that. But I never chose to answer any of those things or make fun of any of the other people involved. It's not my way. And you just go and you be a comedian and you do what you do.

Mavis Leno: I'm sorry. This is a subject I'm very, very angry about to this day.

Jay's wife Mavis was much more upset than her husband.

Mavis Leno: It made me angry because there was this perception that for some reason Jay had decided to give up the show. It was like he gave the show to Conan and then he took it back. That was not what happened, OK? That was not what happened.

Steve Kroft: There were a lot of people that felt you should have just-- a lotta people including Conan--

Jay Leno: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: --felt that you just sort of said-- should have gone off to ABC or to Fox or to someplace else and not--

Jay Leno: Well, you know something? NBC is my home. Don't forget, back in 2004, I went into work one day and, "Hey, you lost your show." "What?" So suddenly it was taken from me, and then they said, "We wanna give it back to you." I said, "Fine."

Steve Kroft: Did you try and talk NBC into getting rid of Conan so you could come back?

Jay Leno: No, never. I never in my wildest dreams thought that would happen, never. It never occurred to me that they asked me to come back. I thought he would do fine.

[Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show:" There's no place like home....]

On March 1, 2010, Jay Leno was back behind the desk at "The Tonight Show" and almost immediately back in first place.

[Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show:" Well health officials are now warning that pot smoking can cause apathy. In fact, a recent poll shows that most pot smokers couldn't care less.]

Four years later "The Tonight Show" was still No. 1 in a crowded, highly competitive field that included his chief rival David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan, and Stephen Colbert. And once again NBC pushed Leno out in favor of a younger talent...this time Jimmy Fallon.

Steve Kroft: You would have liked to have stayed?

Jay Leno: It's not my decision. And I think I probably would have stayed if we didn't have-- an extremely qualified, young guy ready to jump in. If they said, "Look, you're fired. We don't know who we're gonna get. We don't know what we're gonna put in there. But anybody but you, we just want you out of--" I would be l-- hurt and offended. But this makes perfect sense to me. I understand this.

Steve Kroft: You would have preferred to stay?

Jay Leno: Well, it's always nice to keep working. Sure it is. Sure it is. But am I extremely grateful? Yeah. Do I understand the circumstance-- yes, of course.

Steve Kroft: This is the part I don't understand. I mean, you're still--

Jay Leno: Well, I--

Steve Kroft: No. 1.

Jay Leno: --I think because you have-- talented people will only wait so long before they get other opportunities. And you don't want to lose that opportunity. That makes sense to me. And I thought Jimmy's been extremely gracious and polite.

Steve Kroft: You said all of the same things, exactly about Conan.

Jay Leno: Huh? Did I say the same things? Yeah, prob-- well, maybe I did, yeah. Well, we'll see what happens.

Steve Kroft: You think you might get a call two years from now and say--

Jay Leno: No.

Steve Kroft: --you come back?

Jay Leno: No, this is a lot different situation.

[Jay Leno: Boring auction and dinner set for Tuesday... maybe.]

This time Leno said he saw the handwriting on the wall. There is a generational and technological shift afoot with Twitter and social media that he finds harder to relate to.

Jay Leno: I get it, you know? Johnny was 66 when he left. I would be 64 when I leave. And that's about right, you know? I really like Jimmy Fallon. I think he's terrific. You know, when I see him do a dance number with, you know, Justin Timberlake or somebody, I go, "I can't do that."

Jay Leno: I think after a while, you know, I'm not gonna be that up on the latest Justin Bieber record when you're 64. You know, whatever it might be, so--

Steve Kroft: Do you know what Justin Bieber's latest song is?

Jay Leno: No, I know you do, but I-- no, I don't.

"I get it, you know? Johnny was 66 when he left. I would be 64 when I leave. And that's about right, you know?"

Steve Kroft: Do you get the sense or do you have a feeling now that things are starting to wind down? Has it kind of like sunk in?

Jay Leno: Oh yeah. I knew a couple of years ago things were winding down...sure but this is my second time doing this, so -- this is my second time winding down, so you get quite used to it. Yeah.

[Jay Leno: How bout that snow storm back east...New England whiter than a Paula Deen Christmas.]

The staff worked on his latest farewell show, but what everyone wanted to know was what Jay Leno was going to do with himself when all of this was over. He said he expects to spend more time with Mavis and puttering around his garages, which occupy two large hangers at the Burbank airport, and house one of the country's best collections of classic cars and motorcycles. Most of them have been restored by Leno and a small staff. And each car and motorcycle has its own unique story.

LenoKroftGaragewitCars.jpg
Jay Leno and Steve Kroft
CBS News
Steve Kroft: Do you drive any of these cars?

Jay Leno: No, they're all-- every car here is on the road. Every car here is licensed and you can hop in and go for a ride in any one of 'em.

This battery-powered car goes back to the turn of the last century.

Steve Kroft: Wow. Like a Tesla.

Jay Leno: There were charging stations all over New York, 1907, 1908, 1909...

Leno does a weekly webcast out of the garage and the day we were there, Tim Allen, another car obsessed comedian dropped by for the taping and a tour. I'd been there 22 years ago, it's still Leno's only known outside interest.

Steve Kroft: It's much s-- much bigger now. It's a much bigger garage. But are you doing anything else? I mean, have you-- in the last 22 years, have you, like, branched out?

Jay Leno: You mean like of the symphony or something...

Steve Kroft: There's been no emotional growth? Is that your-- what you're telling me?

Jay Leno: No emotional growth? How do you mean? In what--terms?

Steve Kroft: I mean--

Tim Allen: Ooh, look at the time. Maybe I'll step over here.

Steve Kroft: You haven't branched out. You haven't, like, wanted to do new things with your time, with your life?

Jay Leno: Well, I t-- t-- each-- each project is a new thing. I mean, it depends--

Tim Allen: This is getting uncomfortable.

Jay Leno: --I'm not sure what that means.

Grand as all this is no one really believes it's going to fill the void left by "The Tonight Show." And Leno acknowledged that there are no shortages of opportunities for him.

Steve Kroft: You're a workaholic. What are you going to do?

Jay Leno: I don't know what I'll do. Will I do another late night show to go against any of these people? No. No, that-- no. You can't recreate what we had at "The Tonight Show." That was a 22-year moment in time. It was fantastic. And I loved it. Would I like to do things with-- oh, I don't know, History Channel? Yeah, I think that would be fun to do.

Steve Kroft: So you're going to the History Channel? Can we go with that?

Jay Leno: No, no, no, I'm not going to the History Channel. But I really like being a comedian. I mean, I like going on the road. It's really fun making people laugh, you know?

Last year, Leno says he did more than 100 stand-up performances in addition to his Tonight Show duties and that doesn't include his regular gig at the Hermosa Beach Comedy and Magic Club.

Jay Leno: I've been here every Sunday night since 1978. So it's probably safe to assume this will continue. You know, this club is good because--

Steve Kroft: Do you have a contract?

Jay Leno: No, no. There's no contract. It's a real audience to test what works and in a real situation.

[Jay Leno: Oh I'm on right now.]

Jay Leno: What's more fun? And when it's successful, it's very rewarding, There really is no greater satisfaction than the adulation and respect of other human beings.

[Jay Leno: How's the crowd?

Comedian: Good crowd.]

Jay Leno: I get that every day. Every day someone goes (CLAPS)-- well, thank you very much, well, thank you, thank you. Most people don't get that in their jobs, you know? Every day I walk out and I get that on my job and it's-- it's very rewarding and I don't take it for granted and it's a lotta fun.

Announcer: Here he is right now. Mr. Jay Leno, everybody. Jay Leno...Leno...

  • Steve Kroft

    Few journalists have achieved the impact and recognition that Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes work has generated for over two decades. Kroft delivered his first report for 60 Minutes in 1989.

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