Jay Leno: Mr. Nice Guy

Anyone in the news business will tell you that a side benefit is the diverse number of people one gets to meet.

Jay Leno, who leaves “The Tonight Show” on Feb. 6 after a 22-year run (retire is not the right word in his case), is one such person.

The circumstances surrounding our first meeting involved a column I wrote 15 years ago in support of his wife’s activism on behalf of Afghan women. Jay and Mavis Leno invited my wife and me for a visit. Things progressed from there.

Last October when we attended the show, I asked him why he wouldn’t want to move to another network after leaving NBC. He told me that after being number one for some time, a new show would always be measured by the success of “The Tonight Show” and he didn’t want that. “Besides,” he said, “I am going to be very busy.” He said he has scores of appearances scheduled, starting the day after his departure from “Tonight.”

On a previous visit I asked him why he never had a substitute host. He said, “Are you kidding? That’s how I got the job.” He often subbed for Johnny Carson. Unlike the four-times married Carson, Jay is married to the same woman he started with and he has never been associated with any scandal. He is the anti-Justin Bieber.

If you saw the “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night, you witnessed what seemed like genuine humility from a man at the top of his game. That is rare in entertainment and in politics.

I once asked him why the show wasn’t labeled “starring,” instead of “with Jay Leno.” He said, “You always want to underplay yourself,” implying as Scripture does that “pride goes before destruction.”

Once he invited us to a movie screening on the Fox lot, not far from the NBC studios in Burbank. The movie was “The Insider,” about a “60 Minutes” expose of the cigarette industry and the behind-the-scenes battle involving lawyers and journalists to get the expose on the air. It was an amazing moment for me, sitting next to one of the most famous entertainers in America.

I have been privileged to know two of “The Tonight Show’s” four hosts. Steve Allen, who invented the format, was the other. Allen was a multitalented man. In addition to his comedic skills, he wrote more than 3,000 songs (the theme from the film “Picnic” and “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” are among the best known). He also acted and wrote novels. Leno is a great standup comic. His other passion is cars, of which he owns quite a few.

Leno has had some detractors, including a few fellow entertainers (I call them “B-listers”) who criticized what they regarded as his bad behavior during NBC’s disastrous decision to replace him with Conan O’Brien and then move Leno to 10 p.m. Leno was vindicated when NBC was forced to return him to “Tonight” after O’Brien’s ratings tanked.

The website splitside.com offers “9 Reasons Why Jay Leno’s Retirement Will Be the End of Late Night Drama,” by which it means rivalries among hosts. Writes splitside, “It’s likely ... that this will be the last headline-grabbing talk show power struggle for a while because the late-night landscape has changed so much the past few years. And it probably won’t be a bloody battle like the last one given how super polite and new to the job Jimmy Fallon is.”

Reason number nine is: “Once Jay Leno retires, there will be no more Jay Lenos.” That’s for sure.

One more mark of Leno’s graciousness is something Johnny Carson refused to do when he departed. Jay plans to have his replacement, Jimmy Fallon, on the show his final week. It will be a “pass the baton” moment. In the “60 Minutes” interview, Jay praised the talented Fallon as “a young Johnny Carson.” High praise, indeed.

Jay Leno will leave “Tonight” number one in total audience ratings and number one with the coveted younger demographic. He is living proof that sometimes — not often, but on occasion — nice guys can finish first.

Readers may e-mail Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribune.com.

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