It’s dusk in Burbank, the end of a typical 11-hour work day on NBC’s “Tonight Show,” and host Jay Leno is in the network parking lot practicing a long-forgotten ritual on his 1913 Mercer roadster.
First, he lifts the engine cover, then begins squeezing a pint of gas into the small brass spouts leading to the engine’s four pistons. Next, he takes out a pack of matches and lights the gas headlamps and rear tail lamps. Finally, with several turns of the starting crank, the open-air roadster’s engine turns over with a loud, seemingly muffler-less roar. It starts.
And so, it seems, has Leno. Whether it’s because NBC is doing better in prime time, or CBS has suffered from too many affiliate switches, or “The Tonight Show” has gotten better, or David Letterman offended too many fans with his in-your-face-I’m-a-media-hotshot-from-New York performance on the Oscar show, “The Tonight Show” is gaining on “The Late Show” fast.
During the week of April 10-14, Leno scored a household Nielsen rating of a 4.5 and a 13 share against Letterman’s 4.8/15 share. To be sure, Letterman still leads in key demographic categories, but even there Leno is improving.
All this is something of a vindication for Leno, who, since he took over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson in May of 1992, has taken it on the chin from critics and in the ratings as Letterman stole the proverbial show. “It was a very uncomfortable situation, with Johnny retiring and Dave leaving NBC to go to CBS at roughly the same time and having critics say I got the job by default,” said Leno.
“Either way, I was perceived as the bad guy. It feels pretty good not hearing that label attached to me anymore. The truth is that Johnny had this incredible record run that will never be repeated, and I’ll just be happy if we continue to grow in this competitive environment.”
Judging from his early days on “The Tonight Show,” when as many as six celebrities were jammed onto the guest couch each weeknight, a number of TV critics felt Leno had become “Hollywoodized” and that his roots as a stand-up comedian were lost on a production team that failed to recognize what he was most comfortable doing.
A week-long road trip to New York during the May 1994 sweeps is widely cited by NBC executives as the boost that helped Leno return to roots as a stand-up comic. Since then, Leno and his production team brought a piece of New York back with them to Burbank in the form of a new nightclub-style set, which has seemed to inject the show with new energy.
“Jay’s the first to admit that he wasn’t experienced enough in day-to-day television production to know what it was that had been missing in the old studio,” said Rick Ludwin, NBC’s senior vice president of late night, who, with NBC Productions executive vice president Gary Considine, engineered the reconstruction of the show’s set. “The minute that he got to New York and felt that energy and that proximity to the audience, he knew what was missing and what he needed to fertilize the show here.”
“I’m a lot more comfortable on the new set,” adds Leno, who does his own pre-show warmups on a stage platform that is no more than three feet from the first row of audience participants. “You need to do things your own way, and my way has always been to have the audience as close as physically possible. … It seems to bring the audience in tight, seeing their faces and playing off their reactions. I enjoy the interplay and really thrive on it.”
“The Tonight Show” has scored a 4.6 rating/14 share average in the season-to-date national Nielsen rating, a 7 percent gain over its comparable year-ago average, while “The Late Show” has suffered a 7 percent decline to a 5.4/16 average season-to-date.