Jay Leno, born in New Rochelle, New York, on April 28, 1950, may be best known as host of NBC's Tonight Show. By winning the host seat of the NBC show he has followed in the path of past greats Johnny Carson, Jack Paar and Steve Allen.
Leno began his stand-up career in Boston and New York comedy clubs and strip bars in the 1970s. He was a popular opening act for such performers as crooner Johnny Mathis and country singer John Denver, and he wrote scripts for the sitcom Good Times, starring Jimmy Walker. After becoming host of Late Night, David Letterman granted Leno over forty appearances on the program. By 1986 Leno was named one of several guest hosts for the Tonight Show, but the untiring success-seeker still spent 300 days per year on the road.
As a popular stage and television comic, Leno strived not to offend by offering non-sexist, non-racist, anti-drug humor. He focused on ridiculing the idiocies of social life with a feel-good approach, avoiding cynicism and promoting patriotism. Being selected as Johnny Carson's replacement on the tonight show surprised the industry.
David Letterman had been slated for the job but NBC was attracted to the more cooperative Leno who was sure to match wit with the older Tonight Show audience. Trying to win over some of Letterman's fans, Leno's Tonight Show made stage renovations, recruited younger popular guests and Branford Marsalis for musical accompaniment. Within a short period of time Marsalis left the show and was replaced by Kevin Eubanks.
A year into the show, Leno was faced with a rating war against CBS' new Late Show, hosted by his highly paid competitor, David Letterman. During it's first three years the Late Show bettered the Tonight Show's ratings, in particular with the under 50 crowd. To boost ratings Leno decided to hire new writers and to endorse advertiser's goods, particularly Hondas and Doritos on the air. Early in 1995 Tonight went through a huge make over, changing a talk show format to a variety format creating a more comfortable, comedy club type atmosphere for Leno. By 1996 the show had regained its status as the most popular late night show in the United States.
Leno experienced what some called a 'mid-career trauma' due to his frustration with his make-or-break Tonight Show role. He went back to the roots of his career and began making increased appearances at college campuses across the country and Las Vegas clubs. He has appeared around the U.S. in hundreds of comedy shows for the past 20 years traveling to Bosnia in 2001 to perform for military troops stationed there. He remains passionate about performing in front of live audiences and can be expected to continue to do so throughout the remainder of his career. Jay Leno has also written two books, the first in 1998 titled 'Leading With My Chin' and a second book for children in 2004 titled 'If Roast Beef Could Fly'. A popular comic in every respect, Leno has been voted one of the Best Loved Stars in Hollywood by the TV Guide and Best Political Humorist by Washingtonian Magazine.