Hearne: Why So Many People Who Know Jay Leno Despise Him

IMG_3316No way is Jay Leno going quietly in the night…

I may be wrong, but that’s my take having worked with Leno and kept an eye on him through the years.

Because of that relationship, I got a call from KSHB TV last Thursday wanting to interview me about my Jay Leno show at the Music Hall in April 1986.

Ostensibly it was Leno’s first appearance  in KC so Channel 41 sent a reporter and cameraman to my house in Lawrence to record a piece for the station’s 5 p.m. newscast on Leno’s last night as the host of the Tonight Show (KSHB being the local NBC affiliate.)

While the television audience got the first bite, obviously I saved the best for you guys.

so here’s my pull-no-punches story:

For starters, it was a show that never should have been booked. Some friends and I had started a small promotions company called Firm Productions. Our mission; have a little fun, make a little money and maybe take advantage of the dark nights ahead at Kemper Arena with the Kansas City Kings NBA team leaving for Sacramento.

Little did we know…

UnknownI won’t bore you with the many hard luck lessons we were taught by veteran promoters like Chris Fritz, but after experiencing some modest successes with The Happy Together Tour (Turtles, Grassroots, Buckinghams and Gary Lewis and the Playboys) and a Romantics show, a former classmate named Rick Brown approached me about helping him to book a date here with Leno.

Frankly, I’d never heard of the dude – for the most part I don’t do mainstream TV – but Rick was trying to get a toehold in the comedy biz but had no credentials or experience to enable him to book an act like Leno. So armed with what I thought was Rick’s money and Firm Production’s meager credentials, I agreed to help Rick put on the show.

Little did I know that after I booked the date with Leno at the Music Hall for April 19, 1986, Rick would back out. Something about his dad – Eugene D. Brown of residential real estate fame – nixing Rick’s involvement, as I recall.

Basically, I was stuck.

I could either bail and make Firm look bad with what was then a big talent agency, or press on with my partners and do the show anyway. Unfortunately, I chose the latter.

Fledgling promoters that we were, we worked hard and landed radio (KCFX FM), television (WDAF TV) and corporate sponsorships (Video Venders). We produced and distributed good-looking posters and handbills, both radio and television spots and arranged for a number of interviews and promotions with other local media. We even flyered the cars at Kemper at a packed Bill Cosby show.

Trouble was, not many folks had heard of  Leno back then – not enough, anyway. 

jcarson15Oh sure, Leno held the record at the time for most guest host appearances on Johnny Carson‘s Tonight Show, and he had a boatload of rave critical reviews. Plus he was slated to host Saturday Night Live in late February two months before our show.

Oh yeah, and he only cost $10 grand – $10 grand that was supposed to come out of Rick’s pocket which unfortunately instead came out of ours.

Let’s cut to the chase…

Nanci Saper circa 1986 by Chuck Lowe

Nanci Saper
circa 1986 by Chuck Lowe

So how much did we lose? Ten grand, of course.

Because we had rent and production costs, staffing, advertising and media buys – oh and a a thousand bucks for a St. Louis comic buddy of Jays nobody ever heard of. n short, it was a sweet deal.

Now let me tell you about Jay Leno.

He put on a kick ass, two-hour standup show that had the 1,200 or so (out of 2,400 available seats) laughing wildly from start to finish. Including me – despite that I knew we were taking a bath.

Leno was called the “Bruce Springsteen of comedy” at the time.

And he lived up to his rep, because not many comics could – or would – go out and nail two-plus hours. Let alone two hours that absolutely killed with nary a single bad word. Not one F bomb. Not one S bomb. Nothing even close.

Leno was made for the Tonight Show; funny as hell and clean as a whistle.


Nanci Saper

He flew in a day early to help  publicize the show and I have to hand it to him, Leno did everything we asked. Every goofy lame interview – like KY102 jock Jon Hart who came to Leno’s hotel room downtown with a tiny tape recorder, while trying to impress radio shrink Marshall Saper‘s smoking hot niece, Nanci Saper.

Leno even let me to drag him all the way to Belton to schmooze Bev Worth of Worth Harley-Davidson, who supplied a new Harley for Jay to ride onstage at the Music Hall.

During that long day of me babysitting and driving Jay around prior to the show I was the proverbial fly on the wall listening to him rap with his comic buddy from St. Louis.

Which was quite revealing.

Because Leno spent about 90 percent of the time dissing other comics, especially SNL “Weekend Update” host Dennis Miller.  Leno couldn’t say enough bad things about Miller, who at the time had a leg up on Leno in show biz.

The Jay Leno I observed was a fierce competitor. Someone who viewed other up and coming comics as the enemy. Enemies he took great delight in trashing.

So it did not surprise me years later after Leno finally got the Carson gig in 1992 that a scandal erupted with Leno’s hard charging manager Helen Kushnick getting dinged for “negotiating tactics that could be construed as either shrewd or unethical” with “abrasive and threatening” manners that angered “Leno’s bosses, colleagues, potential guests.”

Dennis Miller circa 1986

Dennis Miller
circa 1986

All of which was depicted in the book and 1996 HBO movie The Late Shift.

Nor was I startled to read this recent headline in Entertainment Weekly:

” ‘Big Jaw’ vs. The World: A History of Jay Leno Hate”

“So as Leno prepares for his final few Tonight Shows, he finds himself in a unique position. More widely watched than any of his competitors, yet widely reviled by the majority of his peers.”

One more time.

“Widely reviled by the majority of his peers.”

Look, Jay Leno didn’t get where he got by being cute and cuddley. He worked his butt of and clawed his way to the top.

jay_leno_fiat_500_a_lThat’s why I told Channel 41 that I don’t see Leno rolling over and playing dead.

Leno lives to be on stage, make tons of money and spend it on wildly expensive and exotic automobiles. It’s more than just a little superficial, but hey, it’s his dough and he can spend it however he wants. But if money can’t buy love, it doesn’t appear that it can buy friendship either.

Maybe that’s why when Carson hosted his final Tonight Show, successor Leno neither appeared on nor garnered a mention on the show.

As for Dennis Miller, interviewed about Leno in 1992 he said:  ”Jay and I were very good friends at one point. I don’t think I’d talk to him again, nor would he want to talk to me.”

Or how about the author of The Late Show describing Leno as “a two-faced machine willing to do whatever it takes to win.”

Say this about the Jay Leno I hung with and have followed, he pretty much disproves the old saying that, “Nice guys finish last.”

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21 Responses to Hearne: Why So Many People Who Know Jay Leno Despise Him

  1. mike t. says:

    interesting I guess. my first thought is that in just about any corporate boardroom you find guys even more ruthless than leno. why should comedy be any different?

  2. chuck says:

    That is a terrible picture of Nancy, I sent you a much better one.


    Cool story!

    • admin says:

      Ask and you shall recieve, I’ll put your pic of Nanci up, Chuck.

      But your pic was of Nanci was in her prime; She had Jon Hart wrapped around her finger like a little puppy dog…a puppy dog that was not going to get fed.

      I think the pic I found online is far more current.

  3. hot harley says:

    first off hearne…the entertainment promotion business is very tough..
    you were luckyto lose just 10K.
    other promoters in this town have lost a lot more…some losing almost
    80k in ticket money to gambling debts.
    Look at jay leno….billionaire…most successful comic probably in
    30 years….the other comics came and went (chris rock/etc.)but
    leno has been on top for 30 years.
    Dennis miller…one time pretty decent comic…now just a has been
    washed up loser on low watt am stations with his worthlessw
    comedy for right wing nuts. He’s traveling with Bill Noreally
    these days probably cause bill feels sorry for the guy who’se
    career tanked.
    jay leno…nice guy….all the stars he help put on the map loved
    him. Kevin eubanks loves him…ricky minor loves him….
    I’m sure the crystal and all the big time people who came on his
    final 6 months love him…and most importantly he was never
    shy about helping people get started. Ask glaze about kia the photo
    booth girl he had at his club recently. I never knew this girl til she
    did those hilarious photo booth segment on tonight show.
    As we’ve seen with you and glaze …not everybody loves ya. Doesn’t mean
    you’re a terrible person. Glaze helped out some comics early intheir
    career…some come back and appreciate it when they were starting
    while others just brush him off.
    Jay did his job…did it well. His time came and went and I’m sure
    millions of people loved this guy and his show….it was nbc’s most
    profitable show on the network!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    nbc loved him…or maybe just loved the billions he made general electric.
    whatever the case…jay did his duty for you….
    and look at him…..millions of fans…
    while the guy who said he hated him probably has to scrape for
    3 mintues on some right wing nut tv network….
    good luck
    your friend

    • admin says:

      Agree Harley, Dennis Miller ended up going nowhere compared to where he started.

      He was way ahead of Leno at that point, but that’s ancient history now.

      However 10 grand was a lot of dough back then for a theater show. Check some car prices from back then to get an idea. A 1986 Corvette coupe listed for just $27,000…we’re talking $63,000 today.

      And again, it was a theater show not Kemper or Sandstone.

  4. newbaum turk says:

    It doesn’t sound like he was a prick to you personally. Maybe he is an a-hole, maybe not. I know a lot of Hollywood stories can become embellished after they’ve been told and re-told a thousand times. Look at Dennis Miller (who I used to like). Apparently the only gig he can get is playing the angry guy on Fox News with all the other angry people?

    • admin says:

      He was not a prick to me, not even close, newbaum…

      But listening to him blab with his comic buddy from St. Louis was quite revealing for what a hard-edged, catty competitor he could be. As evidenced by the many other stories that have surfaced over the years.

  5. CG says:

    Great story Hearne. I remembered you had Jay in your promoting days and told NBC local to call you instead of me for interview..glad they did. Wonderful information. Yeah we never had him at Stanfords, he stopped in once to say hi and see the club in Westport but by then he was big, big bucks and not doing clubs, just theaters. You got him on the ride up, shocked he didn’t sell out back then. Must have been a headache…again loved this one.

  6. jack p. says:

    Agree with CG. Fascinating behind the scenes story with Leno.
    Some day I’ll have to tell you the story of when I ‘babysat’ Rock Hudson while he was coming through K.C. to promote “Pretty Maids All In A Row.”
    Mind you this was BEFORE he came out…..

    • admin says:

      Dear Jack:

      Are you hinting that there’s a kiss in tell in the works between you and The Rock of yesteryear?

  7. Stomper says:

    Great piece Hearne. Definitely a different time and place. Firm Productions had a pretty interesting run for a while there. How about something on the Fritz/Bangles story?

  8. Gerald Bostock says:

    As I recall, Jeff Cesario opened that show for Leno. Ironically, Cesario later worked as a writer on Dennis Miller’s talk show. Last seen writing/producing for Queen Latifah TV show.

    • Stomper says:

      Thanks G.B. I was trying to remember who opened when I referenced the KC show on Hearnes wrestling piece. Were you in the crowd that night? If so, thanks !!!

  9. Stomper says:

    Thanks for the picture, Chuck !!!

    You’re correct, a much more attractive photograph.

  10. David says:

    Hearne. Very interesting article. I may have been at that Music Hall show. Can’t remember. Been too long and went to too many shows in those days. I do remember that Skid Roadie MC’d the Leno show I attended, and he was just as funny as Leno. Both were great. Never was much of a Leno fan though. Haven’t missed a Letterman monologue since I retired. I love his attitude. Leno was right for the Tonight Show though. Conan wasn’t. NOT very funny. Anyone could have predicted his demise. Maybe you did. My question is, what’s your take on Jimmy Fallon? As gifted as he is, I don’t see a long run. Could it be the end of the Tonight Show?

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