Jay Leno, Tonight Show

NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater

Conan O'Brien might want to prepare a few bars of "One for My Baby," just in case.

The host-in-waiting is not only primed to be Jay Leno's successor to the Tonight Show desk but will be the final guest when Leno's late-night reign comes to an end on May 29.

A company man to the end, Leno praised his redheaded replacement as a "smart, great guy" and "a lot of fun."

"I like the guy, we're friends," Leno said of O'Brien. "Unlike the Miss California USA pageant, this is a peaceful transition of power."

Leno says he has some surprises in store as he ends his 17 years as late-night's No. 1 star. "I have something really unusual and different planned...Something really out of left field that we're gonna end on. It's something really personal and unusual."

Tantalizing tease aside, the rest of Leno's final show, he confirmed, will feature some of his best hits, including highlights from Leno favorite "Jaywalking" and a musical appearance by James Taylor, but don't expect the same air of finality as Johnny Carson's goodbye.

"I end Friday, I'm in Atlantic City Saturday," Leno said. "It's not like we're leaving show business, or leaving the network, or even leaving the lot. I'm off air for less time than the writers' strike and then I'm back in September with something different."

But not that different.

"I'm trying to figure out how to do some of the [same] bits. The key to this is having a lot more comedy in the last half-hour," he said, adding that his monologue and real people bits will be incorporated into The Jay Leno Show when it sweeps across NBC's 10 p.m. time slot this September.

How—or, more accurately, from what setting—he delivers those bits still needs to be worked out.

"I'd like to leave the desk and chair to the Tonight Show, but I haven't figured out how to do that," Leno said, adding that while he'd like to do away with the traditional trappings of late-night, his new studio has yet to even be built.

"This all started, like, a week ago. We just got engaged, and you guys are planning the wedding."

One thing that will change, though, is how Leno fits into the network's greater ratings plan—something the host, who proclaimed "10 o'clock is like the new 11:30," is keenly aware of.

"Although my job previous to this is giving a good lead-in to Conan, the new job giving a good lead-in to the 11 o'clock news is really, really important. It's where our affiliates make most of their money."

Even those affiliates that initially seemed less than pleased with his time change.

"I'm not an egomaniac, it's not like this is my idea and we're gonna ram it down people's throats," he said.

And while Leno is up for the challenge of competing against his heavy-hitting prime-time competitors, he knows it'll be no easy task.

"I think it'll be harder. It's easier going up against a parade of white guys, because we're all doing basically the same thing," he said of his current, for now, late-night gig. "CSI is the best-looking show on television. We're just gonna offer an alternative.

"Do I expect to beat them the first week we're up against each other? Probably not. It would be nice, but I'm a realist. This is an economic decision as well. We can shoot five Tonight Shows for less than one of these dramas."

Make that, five Jay Leno Shows.

As for complaints that Leno's move has cost drama-series actors their jobs, or that he may hurt for guests that appear on competing networks at the same time, the host isn't too worried about potential Industry fallout.

"The great thing about show business is if the show's a hit, they will step on their mother," he said.

"You're in prime time now. I think it helps you get guests and get a jump on other shows.

"There's plenty of drama on television. There's more drama now than there's ever been. There's no laughs at 10 o'clock. Every time I tune in at 10 o'clock…'OK, we're taking off the cerebral cortex…' "

Not exactly a yukfest.

As for any potential booking issues, even if the major guests are hard to come by in the beginning, which by most accounts will not be the case, it's unlikely to affect Leno's particular brand of comedy.

"There are only 18 guests in the whole world who mean anything in the ratings," he said. "Everyone else is treading water, the rest is up to you.

"The one thing I learned from Johnny Carson is, no matter what happens, if a bomb goes off or there's a disaster, you go out and do the jokes. When the times are bad, you do silly jokes, when the times are good, you do serious jokes. You go out and do the job."

Helping him do the job his final week on air are Leno-approved guests Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Lyle Lovett, Wanda Sykes, Sarah MacLachlan, Billy Crystal, Dwight Yoakam and Prince.

"Everybody here knows who I like and who I'm friends with and who would be good to be the last guest. I think Tom Cruise is doing a film or something that week, so he's not available."

As for final night guest Taylor, Leno locked that appearance in more than a year ago, when he said he floated the especially personal pick to the songwriting legend himself.

"When I left Boston in the late '70s, James Taylor was on the radio," Leno said, revealing his pitch to the willing singer. "'You're the last thing I heard when I left town, so it'd be great…"

As for his new show, Leno said the trick was to "try not to get too excited, try not to get too depressed."

"If this show is a success, I'll be over the moon. If not, oh well, at least I have this," he said, referring to his 17-year run as the top late-night host.

"This is a business. People are always trying to knock you off the perch. I never assume anybody's turning on the show to see me. I make sure I have jokes, and I make sure I have material, 'cause that's what people want to see."

Leno's final Tonight Show airs May 29. O'Brien ascends on June 1.


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