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Jay Leno on the evolution of 'The Tonight Show'

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Tonight Show
Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

When EW chose Jimmy Fallon as Entertainer of the Year, there was one person we knew we wanted to get in touch with for some insight: Johnny Carson. But since he wasn’t available (read: died in 2005), we hit up Jay Leno instead and got his thoughts on Fallon’s Tonight Show and the franchise’s evolution in general. And Leno had plenty of praise for Fallon. “He’s probably more like Johnny than any other host,” he told us. “Not that there’s been that many hosts. But Johnny was very boyish when he was 40 years old, and Johnny had some musical skills as well.”

On Jimmy as a host:

“I don’t watch every night, but I watch and I enjoy—and I enjoy Seth [Meyers], too. Jimmy’s a really great mimic. When I saw him do Neil Young, I just thought it he was lip-syncing the song. But no—he really captures the nuances really well. It’s different. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. I could never do a musical parody—it’s just not what’s in me.”

On the monologue:

“The other difference is that the monologue doesn’t have the immediacy that I think it had in other eras, because people would come at 11:30 at night to hear what was being said about whatever the story is. Hopefully you’re the first person out there breaking or doing a joke about whatever the story is. But in the interim, so many other late-night shows have come along. Plus with social media, it’s all over Twitter before it even gets to you.

The interesting thing that Jimmy has brought to it are these viral videos they release, which in some cases are as popular as the show. People go to it. And they often see it sometimes before it airs over in the West Coast [because the show posts them online during the East Coast broadcast]. They can watch it whatever time they want. You don’t have that appointment television thing that you had years ago.”

On keeping the show relevant:

“You know, I got out at the right time. When you’re 40 and you’re talking to the 25-year-old supermodel, it’s sexy. When you’re 64, you’re the creepy old guy, you know? At some point, you can’t pretend to know all of Jay Z’s music. You can only live in the time you live in. When I did the show, the emphasis was maybe a bit more on political [jokes] and stuff like that, but that was a difference [on my show]. I remember when I took over, all of a sudden, I’d be on the cover of the Washington Post and some of the Sunday magazines for doing a lot of political stuff. Johnny was not overtly political. And I wasn’t crazy-crazy political, but it was more than had been done in the past.”

On the role of political humor in late-night:

“Well, Jimmy does a broad-based kind of thing, the way that Johnny did. It’s always been a broad-based show. When you get mired down for some sort of political stance that you’ve taken, there’s somebody always mad. I think everybody knew where Johnny stood on certain issues, because the joke always came first, and there might be some sort of comment on the side. The mistake other hosts, I think, make is that they put their political belief first, and then they have a little joke afterwards, which is not what the show is about. It would always make me chuckle when we had a Republican president and people would be like, ‘Well, Leno and his Democratic friends…’ and when we had a Democratic president, it’d be, ‘Well, Leno and his Republican buddies…’ People always assume you’re doing a joke for some specific political reason as opposed to—hopefully it’s just funny.”