Jay Leno Was Good for Ratings (and Ad Age)

'Tonight Show' Star Gamely Hosted Awards Night

By Published on .


I don't understand why NBC is so anxious to show Jay Leno the door. Late night is about the only thing working for the network.


Ratings for "The Tonight Show" have reached a seven-week high, with over 3.5 million viewers. Sure, the ratings spiked after Jay started insulting NBC brass over the network's miserable performance on prime time and their treatment of him. But handily beating Letterman and Kimmel is one of the few things NBC can boast about.


Meanwhile, things at the "Today" show continue to deteriorate in full view of the show's dwindling audience. If NBC doesn't want Jay on "Tonight" any longer, how about hiring him to replace Matt Lauer on "Today"?

As you can probably tell, I've got a soft spot in my heart for Jay. Advertising Age signed him in the late '80s to host an awards show -- for four consecutive years at a ridiculously low price.

Bruce DuMont, head of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago at the time, approached me about doing an Ad Age awards show to benefit the museum, and he suggested several hosts, one of whom was Joan Rivers. But she wanted $50,000. The next day he suggested Jay Leno. Bruce gave us a tape of Jay appearing on "Letterman." We thought it was funny stuff.

So Laura Zuckert, our former corporate-projects director and now executive assistant to the president and CEO of Sunset Foods, asked 12 Ad Age editorial staffers if they'd heard of Leno; six had -- they had all watched him on "Letterman" and liked him.

Laura recalls that she met Jay a few hours before the awards show. "He was good-naturedly carrying a box of materials for Ad Age's marketing director," Laura remembers. "He was down-to-earth and pleasant. While reviewing the show script with me, he came up with a funny joke on the spot."

At the show Jay had the audience "on the floor." William "The Refrigerator" Perry, the former 300-pound-plus lineman for the Chicago Bears, was there to accept an award as Ad Age's Celebrity Presenter of the Year. Perry had agreed to be there for one hour, but the show was running long, and Laura realized that the one-hour window would expire before the Refrigerator got his award. When Laura approached him about staying, he was enjoying Jay so much that he smilingly said, "I'm not leaving."

When Jay's agent called the next morning to suggest a three-year commitment, I readily agreed -- for a slightly higher fee. And during the next three years he went from relative obscurity to being the permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show."

Jay flew in from L.A. on the day of each show, leaving L.A. early but arriving "fresh and pleasant," Laura told me. The last year he seemed "a bit distant and a little less pleasant," probably because we had him working for peanuts. But he still delivered a great show, and Jay graciously complied with the many requests to pose with him for pictures.

Linda Fuller, who served as Laura's assistant for several years before going on to become a highly respected urban planner in Chicago, sent along this anecdote about Jay: "One year I was sitting outside the main hall of the awards show at a table, dealing with latecomers, and Jay came out, sat down next to me, and told people we were selling Girl Scout Cookies. It was pretty funny -- he was very nice to us functionaries."

After the last year, Jay had become too expensive for us, so we debated between Richard Lewis and Jerry Seinfeld, whom Laura had scouted on late-night TV. Lewis balked at being required to do at least 25% of his jokes about advertising, so we went with Seinfeld, who came up with a funny ad gag on the spot.

I seem to recall he also made a pretty good name for himself.

Most Popular
In this article: