Leno leaves a legacy of hard work to stay No. 1
That easily eclipses Johnny Carson's total, and Carson hosted The Tonight Show a full eight years longer than his chinny successor.
How do you accelerate your performance numbers like that? With a work ethic that makes Cal Ripken look like a slacker.
In 22 years in late night's primary chair, Leno took two sick days. He used a guest host exactly once - and that was a stunt when he swapped jobs for a day with Today's Katie Couric in 2003.
"He asked NBC in the middle of his run if they could hire a separate writing staff for six weeks, so his guys could get their time off and he could keep working," says Bill Carter, national media reporter for the New York Times, who wrote two books on Leno's turbulent tenure, The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night and The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.
"He would have worked 52 weeks a year if they allowed him," Carter says. "His approach to his career has always been: 'I may not be the most brilliant comic, I may not be credited as an artist, but I will be the guy who outworked everybody.' "
Says Kevin Eubanks, the Philadelphia-born guitarist who served as Leno's Tonight Show bandleader for 15 years, "Jay and James Brown are the two hardest-working cats in show business."
Throughout his Tonight Show term, Leno always maintained a daunting year-round schedule of stand-up dates, partly because he still thinks of himself primarily as a comic. On Ellen last week, he referred to his Tonight gig as "my day job . . . it just lasted 23 [sic] years."
But he also stayed on the road to escape the insular, cynical bubble of L.A. Leno, who has often described his style as "populist," deliberately adopted a mainstream tone for the show, one calculated to draw the widest popular audience.
More than anyone who has ever held the Tonight throne, Leno catered to what makes them laugh in Little Rock.
But that intentionally bland approach brought him the persistent scorn of many in the entertainment industry.
"Jay did not get the level of respect and adulation that Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson got," Carter says. "Some comedians who had seen him as an inventive, edgy comic saw that he had given that up to play the mainstream card and they saw that as not admirable. But no one understood better than Jay how the ratings worked."
In his final days on the show, you can sense at times Leno bridling at his own self-imposed shackles. Last week, he told an uncharacteristically caustic joke about Chinese child laborers and seemed pleased by the mixed reaction from the studio audience. "I only have five shows left," he crowed. "Send your little pissy letter. By the time it gets here, I'll be gone."
No one can dispute that Leno's middlebrow strategy paid off. After a rocky start, he has ranked No. 1 in total viewers in late night since 1995.
And as he passes the mantle to Jimmy Fallon, it is that hard-won dominance Leno is most proud of.
"How does he want to be remembered? It's the simplest answer in the world: as a winner," says Carter. "That was his goal, his only goal. Other people might say he should have made more of a mark, left a legacy. His goal was to keep the show No. 1."
Of course, there's an asterisk. With Leno, there's always an asterisk.
When he first took over the show in 1992, it was perceived, rightly or wrongly, that Leno and his then-agent Helen Kushnick had poached the position from Carson's presumptive heir, David Letterman.
Letterman jumped from NBC's Late Night to CBS to start The Late Show in direct competition with Tonight. It took Leno two years to win his audience back.
In 2004, NBC announced that Leno would step down and that Conan O'Brien, Letterman's replacement on Late Night, would take his place his place as Tonight Show host. In five years.
That led to an awkward, protracted, divisive, and ultimately cataclysmic transition at NBC. In passive-aggressive fashion, Leno let it be known that he felt ill-used by the network and that at 59, he was not ready to be put out to pasture.
NBC, which was faring miserably in prime time, ultimately decided to put Leno on at 10 p.m. in place of far more expensive dramas.
The plan tanked. The Jay Leno Show guttered in the ratings, which dragged down the late news at NBC channels across the country. Affiliates were furious. With those anemic lead-ins, Conan never stood a chance on Tonight.
In full crisis mode, NBC proposed returning to conventional scripted programming at 10 p.m., giving Leno a half-hour slot at 11:35 and starting Conan's Tonight after midnight.
Pointing out that such a move would destroy Tonight's proud 60-year tradition and also contradict the title of the show, O'Brien asked to be let out of his contract, later moving to TBS.
In a matter of months, Leno had regained his Tonight Show crown, but once again he was painted as the villain, the guy who had set up O'Brien to fail just so he could have his job back.
Eubanks, who was working with Leno through this entire volatile period, finds that scenario ludicrous.
"Jay got Conan fired? Why?", he asks. "If Jay had so much pull, why would he kick himself off 11:30 and put himself on this deserted island at 10? How did all this become Jay's fault?"
So when Leno leaves his prominent post Thursday night, it will probably be without the grand gusts of emotion that carried Carson away. In part, that's because Leno is not sentimental by nature, and, in part, because he never won the nation's adoration.
"Almost his entire tenure from the beginning was controversial," says Ron Simon, curator of New York's Paley Center for Media. "His relationship with Letterman and later with Conan. And unlike his predecessors, he faced real competition during his reign. It was not 22 years to envy at all.
"But he maintained the institution under unbelievably difficult circumstances, and you have to give him credit for that," says Simon. "It's not diminished as Jimmy Fallon takes over."
In other words, a good steward. However modest that may sound, it's a label that would please Jay Leno very much.