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October 22, 2014

Jay Leno Fights Back: "I Enjoy Being the Underdog"

by Gary Susman, posted Nov 2nd 2009 1:00PM
Jay LenoWeep not for Jay Leno. The beleaguered, currently ratings-challenged funnyman may be taking the blame for sins both small ('The Jay Leno Show' is a retreat of his 'Tonight Show,' only less funny!) and large (he's killing the 10PM drama, dragging down local newscasts and Conan O'Brien's 'Tonight Show' and pounding one of the final nails into NBC's coffin!).

But Leno claims he's not taking the criticism personally, that his show is doing just fine and that he'll outlast all his rivals and detractors -- after all, he's done it before.

In today's Broadcasting & Cable, Leno grants a lengthy backstage interview to Ben Grossman, in which he outlines his rope-a-dope strategy. "If I have any strength at all in this business, it's the ability to keep going forward under tremendous pressure and under tremendous body shots, and that's where your advantage is," Leno told Grossman. "I do take a certain perverse pleasure in this. See how low you can go, rock bottom, before you can keep crawling back up again."

But while Leno said he's not taking the criticism personally, he added,"I'm not happy to [take shots,] it's my job. Grow up, people. Here's a lot of money, go out and do this. It's the way it works ... I could have said no. But I like being on TV and writing jokes."


Watch 'Jay Leno Show' full episodes


It's worth reading the whole thing in order to get a glimpse of Leno's battlefield mindset, which seems to brush off his current difficulties. After all, he says, he endured much worse during the fabled Late Night Wars of 1992-95. After he replaced Johnny Carson at 'Tonight' and got pummeled in the ratings by David Letterman, Leno finally got the upper hand in 1995 and remained king of late night for the next 14 years. "I've been down this road, I did it with Johnny the first time -- they're going to fire me and replace me with Dave," Leno recalled to Grossman. "That was much worse; this is like a walk in the park compared to that."

Below are some highlights of Leno's B&C interview:

On the challenge of making 10PM work:
Sometimes going against insurmountable odds and making a little progress is maybe more satisfying than going into a situation where you're going to win no matter what.... I do get a sort of perverse pleasure battling windmills here.

On enduring criticism from critics and the media:
You don't take it personally because there's really no fun in an upbeat story. The fun is, they did this and let's watch it fall. I enjoy being the underdog.

On taking the blame for a decision made by NBC brass:
What am I supposed to do, sit here and whine? What does the public hate more than that? Your job is to put your nose to the grindstone and try to fix it. I could complain all I want and it wouldn't change the outcome.

On regrets:

Would I have preferred to stay at 11:30? Yeah, sure. I would have preferred that. I think it's too soon to say whether I regret anything or not.

On not taking pleasure over Conan's struggle at Jay's old job:
There is nothing that kills creativity more than bitterness. You get no satisfaction from that at all. You really, really don't.

On whether he'd return to 11:30 if he were asked:
I don't know ... Would I take it? I guess. But it's not my decision to make; it's really not. I don't know. Something makes me think we might be OK here for a while.

On accusations that he's killed scripted drama at NBC:
If I weren't doing this, it would be 'Dateline' five nights a week or reality shows.

On the format, essentially the same as 'Tonight':
You do something we traditionally do all the time like Headlines or Jaywalking that holds and does well, but critics say, "We've seen that." Well sorry, it works for us; we need to do that.

On NBC's criteria for success:
I'm told if we can keep a 1.5 [rating], they make $300 million a year; this is what they say. So we're a little above the 1.5, we're doing OK.

On Letterman, who's under increased scrutiny over the sex-and-blackmail scandal but also doing better in the ratings:
I wouldn't trade places with Dave now for anything! I don't think he's getting a free pass.

On the strategy that has made him a survivor:
I look at what makes other competitors weak: alcohol, drugs, sex, instability emotionally. And I go, "OK, let me make myself strong by being the long-distance guy." So I try to fashion myself on the fact that emotionally I can take it. Physically I tried boxing and I got the sh** kicked out of me. But emotionally I can take body shots all day long and that doesn't really bother me. I realize that's where my strength is. I see other comics say, "F**k that, I'm not going back to that club, they treated me..." [And I say], "Great, I got that one." That's how you do it.

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