12/6/10 - jay leno

In today's excerpt - after his rough-and-tumble campaign to win The Tonight Show job over David Letterman when Johnny Carson retired in 1992, Jay Leno purposely assumed a very modest profile in contract negotiations, earning far less than Letterman even though his ratings were better than Dave's:

"Everyone in late night remembered the campaign that Jay's former manager, Helen Kushnick, had waged to win the job for her client, which included planting some nasty stories about NBC wanting Carson out. Jay came to be ashamed of those tactics, and after he split with Kushnick, did his best to apologize abjectly to Johnny, insisting that he had not been a party to those moves, and if he had known about them he would have repudiated them. ...

"[In the decade since he won Carson's job], the negotiations with Jay were, without question, the easiest [NBC executive Marc] Graboff had ever conducted. It had been that way ever since Jay had fired Helen Kushnick and sworn off all representation for his future television career. That decision played to some as foolishness, arrogance, or parsimony on an epic scale: To try to manage a career involving so many millions without a formal agent or manager seemed ludicrous. But it was a source of pride for Jay, one more example—to himself if no one else—that deep down he was an unpretentious working man. An insanely well-paid one, certainly, but still a guy with a boss and a job and a salary.

"But beyond its symbolism, or whatever else the antiagent stance meant to Jay, there was a compelling logic to his position. What did he need an agent or manager (or their bills) for at this point in his career? He had no plans to do anything on television other than what he was already doing. What other job was a manager going to win for him? Helen had secured the Tonight position for him; now she was gone. (After splitting from Jay in 1993, Helen passed away from cancer three years later at only fifty-one.) He still had the job. ... [In his contract renewal negotiation], Jay was [only] asking for a small bump, up to about $14 million a year at that point.

"The NBC money, as Jay always professed, had little impact on his daily life because be never spent a penny of it. He banked it all—either in his own accounts or in the small charitable foundation he had established. It again, seemed bizarre to colleagues and most everyone else who heard of this idiosyncratic practice. The man was formidably rich, but was sticking earnings under a mattress somewhere? Obviously Jay, who lived in a lovely Beverly Hills home, didn't hurt for cash; [his wife] Mavis had everything she could ever want and more; and Jay bought every vintage car and motorcycle that caught his fancy. But money for those things came out of the pile he earned on the side, performing up to 160 nights a year around the country at venues ranging from the big Vegas showrooms to outdoor chicken festivals in Fresno in 104-degree heat.

"By rights-and again, by any sense of fairness that a hard-nosed agent would have hammered NBC with—Leno should long ago have been out-earning Letterman, whom he was not only outrating virtually every night of the year, but also outworking by several weeks of shows a year. But Dave still pocketed millions more a year than Jay—a fact Jay never complained about, but actually trumpeted, usually trying to make a joke out of it: 'My thing is, I always make a couple of bucks less than whoever the top guy is. You can't eat the whole pie; you'll get fat, choke, and die.'

"At least some part of Jay's attitude was due to the lingering fallout from the ugliness over Helen's actions, which still affected him deeply. He would tell people he never wanted an agent or manager again, someone who might get overly pushy and poison his relationships. ...

"NBC knew that any typically aggressive agent would have insisted upon at least one dollar more than whatever Letterman was making (which peaked at about $31 million a year), but Graboff had a ready reply to any such demand: Jay was the guy sitting in the chair at The Tonight Show, the institution. Dave was the guy who had to set off on his own and created a franchise. Graboff had stored up a few more reasons why NBC could deny Leno Letterman-level money, but it never became a factor. 'Jay never asked,' Graboff said."


Bill Carter


The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy


Penguin Group


Copyright 2010 by Bill Carter


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