When Jay Leno signs off from “The Tonight Show” Thursday, the comedian will be without a regular TV gig for the first time since he took over for Johnny Carson as “Tonight” host back in 1992. Leno said in several recent interviews that he’s had “all kinds of offers” for post-“Tonight Show” TV work, but adds that he isn’t interested in another late-night gig.
Of course, in Hollywood and television, everything can change. But no matter what, the late-night landscape has changed significantly since 2009, when Leno almost bolted for ABC, which in turn lead to NBC’s creation of “The Jay Leno Show” to keep him from leaving. ABC now has Jimmy Kimmel at 11:30, leaving FOX as the only broadcaster without a late-night show. However, many FOX affiliates have hefty syndication commitments at 11 pm, and if they couldn’t/wouldn’t free them up to make a deal with O’Brien four years ago after his “Tonight” exit, don’t look for them to do it for the older-skewing Leno.
But a notorious workaholic like Leno — who squeezed in 100 stand-up gigs last year in addition to his regular “Tonight Show” hosting duties — won’t simply be putting his feet up in retirement.
Here are seven likely landing spots for him in the coming months:
NBC Entertainment President Robert Greenblatt said at last month’s Television Critics Association winter press tour that he is “very much hoping” he can convince the loyal company man to stick around at the network. Since another “Jay Leno Show” isn’t an option, NBC would more likely offer him a Bob Hope-like deal, where Leno could host variety specials throughout the year. While loyalty has won Leno over before, it’s hard to see him agreeing to such a limited role, especially one that potentially could expose him to yet another host controversy if ratings for “Tonight” falter with Jimmy Fallon at the helm.
The number one basic cable network for the past eight years is making its first real push into comedy this season (it began airing “Modern Family” in syndication last fall, and launches its first original comedy series, “Sirens,” on March 6). What better way to establish its comedy bona fides than land the number one guy in late night? Leno’s audience is a great fit with those of USA’s syndication stalwarts “NCIS” and especially “Law & Order: SVU,” whose audience is accustomed to sticking around for Leno after that show’s conclusion. Better yet, he’d remain in the NBC Universal family, so NBC could still tap him for the occasional primetime special as detailed above, which would give him the best of both worlds. And if Leno is wary of competing against “Tonight,” he could always agree to a half-hour format that starts at 11 and ends before Fallon, Kimmel and David Letterman face off.
Leno’s former NBC boss, Jeff Zucker, now runs CNN Worldwide, and said last month that it’s “not in the cards anytime soon” to give Leno a late-night show at CNN. But he also admitted that CNN’s primetime lineup could use some upgrading. So how about having Leno replace Piers Morgan for a nightly show that relies heavily on interviews, with some comedy components sprinkled in? Leno, who told The Hollywood Reporter that politicians were always his favorite “Tonight Show” interview subjects “because it’s real. They’re not playing a role,” would seem to welcome such a gig.
The top cable news network had once tried to mount a more conservative version of “The Daily Show,” and perhaps they could woo Leno (who has called himself “conservative fiscally” and “probably liberal socially”) for a show that would allow him to joke about the day’s events while interviewing a notable politician (a favorite of his, see above). As was the case with USA, this also seems to be an ideal fit for Leno’s “Tonight Show” audience.
Leno has pointed to the generational disconnect between him and Fallon as one reason for his being ready to step down from “Tonight,” so perhaps the perfect home for him is TV Land, which celebrates retro television on a nightly basis. He could pull together either a late-night or primetime variety show for an audience that would be primed for his brand of humor.
In recent interviews, car buff Leno has made a point of talking up how much he loves doing “Jay Leno’s Garage,” his weekly webcast devoted to his massive car collection. If he wants to pursue something completely different from “The Tonight Show,” a car-centric show would be perfect for him. Leno himself mentioned working for History — home of “Top Gear” —as a job that “would be fun to do” during his 60 Minutes interview; in turn, a network spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter that “we think he would really be complementary to our audience.”
But if Leno wants to make the biggest splash possible by bringing Jay Leno’s Garage to TV, then he really should consider Discovery, which is even a better fit for him than History. Discovery Communications also offers several networks that would be ideal outlets for his various interests and talents. He could adapt Jay Leno’s Garage for Discovery, race cars on Velocity, interview celebs on OWN and turn his “Jaywalking” Tonight segments into a TLC series (come to think of it, more than a couple TLC series seem to have been inspired by “Jaywalking”). Out of all the options listed here, Discovery would give him the best opportunity to try something completely different while also staying in touch with his roots.