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Jay Leno on his new show: '10 o'clock is the new 11:30'

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Jaylenoportrait_l Jay Leno’s not feeling sorry for himself. Speaking to reporters today in anticipation of his May 29 “retirement” from The Tonight Show, Leno said he doesn’t expect to be emotional in those final hours before Conan O’Brien assumes his old chair. “It will be a smooth transition,” Leno promised. “It’s not like I’m leaving show business or leaving the network or leaving the lot. I’m just going to another studio on the other side.”

That cross-lot studio is where Leno will prepare for his new Monday-Friday show on NBC this fall. He’ll bring along some old Tonight Show favorites, like his signature monologue and “Jay Walking” segment, but he admits his challenge will be to keep the funny in the second half-hour of his nightly show. “My job is to give a good lead-in to the 11 o’clock news, that’s really where the local affiliates make their money.”

Speaking of which, Leno said he understood the frustration of Boston affiliate WHDH, which briefly considered whether to run Leno’s show out-of-pattern so it could air a local news shows of its own at 10, instead. “He was fighting for that long before I came on board,” Leno told reporters, referring to station owner Ed Ansin. “I had a nice talk with him.” The issue was resolved less than two weeks later.

Leno did hint about how he almost jumped to an 11:30 p.m. timeslot on a competing network like ABC (Fox was also reportedly wooing the NBC star). “I almost went there,” Leno said. “It’s sort of nice to have people flirt with you, but I didn’t get John Edwards close.” But 10 p.m. on NBC was far more alluring to the veteran comedian — even though he’s now competing against scripted dramas, not fellow comedians. Leno seems unfazed. “10 o’clock is the new 11:30 p.m.,” Leno said. “I hear people saying that I’m taking work away from dramatic writers. Look at FX and USA and all the other cable networks. There is more drama than there ever has been before. If people want to go there, they can go there. We’ll be at 10, where there are no laughs.”

The show should also save NBC some cash, Leno argued. “This was an economic decision as well. You can do five Tonight Shows for less money than showing one 10 o’clock drama.”

Leno’s final week on The Tonight Show will include lots of vintage clips and guests like Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wanda Sykes and Billy Crystal. O’Brien will be his last visitor on the couch on May 29. “It’s a celebration,” Leno said. “Then I’ll be off the air for less time than during the writer’s strike. I’ll come back in September with something a little bit different.

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