9 minute read

Jay Leno (1950-) Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

Born 1950, in New Rochelle, NY; Education: Emerson College, graduated, 1973. Hobbies and other interests: Antique motorcycles and automobiles.


Office—c/o NBC Enterprises, 3500 Olive Dr., 15th Fl., Burbank, CA 91510-7885.


Television personality, actor, comedian, and writer. Rolls Royce auto mechanic and deliveryman; stand-up comedian at venues, including Carnegie Hall and Caesar's Palace; performed as opening act for Henry Mancini, Johnny Mathis, John Denver, James Brown, Tom Jones, and Perry Como; Good Times, CBS, writer, 1974; Jay Leno and the American Dream, Showtime, host and producer, 1986; Tonight Show, NBC, exclusive guest host, 1987-92, host, 1992—. Appeared on television-show episodes, including Good Times, CBS, 1976; Laverne and Shirley, ABC, 1979; Alice, CBS, 1981; Saturday Night Live, NBC, 1986; The Larry Sanders Show, 1993; Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, NBC, 1995; Mad about You, NBC, 1995; Friends, NBC, 1995; Homicide: Life on the Street, NBC, 1996; Seinfeld, NBC, 1996; Third Rock from the Sun, NBC, 1996; Bay-watch, syndicated, 1997; The Simpsons, Fox, 1998; Home Improvement, ABC, 1999; The West Wing, NBC, 2000; Titus, Fox, 2001; The Fairly Oddparents, Nickelodeon, 2001—; Just Shoot Me, 2002; and Scrubs, NBC, 2003. Other television appearances include Jay Leno's Family Comedy Hour, 1987; The 42nd Annual Prime-time Emmy Awards, 1990; Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, 1995; and Fifty Years of NBC Late Night, NBC, 2001. Appeared in films, including The Silver Bears, EMI Films, 1977; Fun with Dick and Jane, Columbia, 1977; American Hot Wax, Paramount, Jay Leno 1978; Americathon, Lorimar/Warner Bros., 1979; Collision Course, De Laurentiis Entertainment/Interscope Communications, 1988; Dave, Warner Bros., 1993; Wayne's World 2, Paramount, 1993; We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story, Amblin, 1993; The Flintstones, Universal/Hanna-Barbera/Amblin, 1994; Major League II, Warner Bros., 1994; The Birdcage, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, 1996; Meet Wally Sparks, Trimark, 1997; Contact, Warner Bros., 1997; In and Out, Paramount, 1997; Mad City, Warner Bros., 1997; EDtv, Universal, 1999; Space Cowboys, Warner Bros., 2000; John Q, New Line Cinema, 2002; Calendar Girls, Buena Vista, 2003; and Mr. 3000, Buena Vista, 2004.

Honors Awards

Writers Guild of America award nomination, 1987; Emmy Award for Best Musical or Variety Series, 1995, and nominations, 1996 and 1997, and Award for Outstanding Technical Direction, 1996, all for Tonight Show; Best Political Humorist designation, Washingtonian magazine; Favorite Late Night Show designation, TV Guide Awards, 1999 and 2000, for Tonight Show; honored with star on Hollywood Walk of Fame.


(Editor) Headlines: Real but Ridiculous Samplings from America's Newspapers (also see below), photographs by Gary Bernstein, cartoons by Jack Davis, Warner (New York, NY), 1989.

(Editor) More Headlines: Real but Ridiculous Samplings from America's Newspapers (also see below), photographs by Joseph Del Valle, cartoons by Jack Davis, Warner (New York, NY), 1991.

(Editor) Headlines III: Not the Movie, Still the Book: Real but Ridiculous Samplings from America's Newspapers (also see below), photographs by Joseph Del Valle, cartoons by Jack Davis, Warner (New York, NY), 1991.

(Editor) Headlines IV: The Next Generation: More Out-of-This World Headlines from the Bestselling Series, photographs by Joseph Del Valle, cartoons by Jack Davis, Warner (New York, NY), 1992.

(Editor) Jay Leno's Headlines. Books I, II, III, Wings (New York, NY), 1992.

(Editor) Jay Leno's Police Blotter: Real-Life Crime Headlines from "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," Andrews & McMeel (Kansas City, MO), 1994.

(With Bill Zehme) Leading with My Chin, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.

(Author of introduction) Jon Macks, Heaven Talks Back: An Uncommon Conversation, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.

(Author of introduction) Frederick Voss, editor, Faces of Time: Seventy-five Years of Time Magazine Cover Portraits, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1998.

(With Dennis Homstrom and others) The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles, Alpha Books (Indianapolis, IN), 2001.

(Author of introduction) Dennis Adler, The Art of the Sports Car: The Greatest Designs of the Twentieth Century, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.

If Roast Beef Could Fly (for children), illustrated by S. B. Whitehead, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.


Late-night television host Jay Leno began his show-business career as a standup comedian. Performing his comedy routines around the country, making as many as 300 appearances a year, Leno eventually procured a spot as guest host of the popular late-night program the Tonight Show, which starred Johnny Carson. With Carson's retirement from the show, Leno stepped in as his successor, beating out other contenders, including David Letterman. Soon dubbed the "King of Late Night" by the media, Leno's Tonight Show began top-ping late-night television ratings in 1995 and became a dominant force by the late 1990s.

The son of an Italian-American father and a Scottish mother who immigrated to the United States alone at the age of eleven, Leno has apparently always had a heart for comedy. His fifth-grade report card read: "If Jay spent as much time studying as he does trying to be a comedian, he'd be a big star." Leno first considered a career in comedy after winning a talent show during his senior year of high school. While a student at Emerson University in Boston, Massachusetts, Leno traveled several hours south to New York City to perform at comedy clubs. He moved to California in 1974 and made his first appearance on the Tonight Show in 1977. Years of hard work on the comedy-club circuit followed, and during the 1980s Leno often served as guest host of the popular show. When the time came, Leno was a natural choice to succeed Carson, and at Carson's retirement in 1992 he became the Tonight Show's permanent host.

Leno's 1996 autobiography, Leading with My Chin, details his rise to fame from small comedy clubs to his late-night television success. Leno's autobiography does not break from his comedic tendencies; he lightheartedly shares anecdotes of his rise to fame, including early gigs in mental institutions. One memorable appearance Leno describes in his book is performing before a group of Orthodox Jews only to find that the audience was really expecting to be entertained by a Yiddish storyteller. Entertainment Weekly contributor Bret Watson described the book as "amiable" and "mildly amusing."

In 2004 Leno published the children's picture book If Roast Beef Could Fly, which features illustrations by S. B. Whitehead. A humorous tale based on an incident from Leno's childhood, If Roast Beef Could Fly describes a disastrous family barbecue. Leno told People contributor Shannon Maughan that the story is a favorite of his. "I do a lot of charity events and fundraisers where you have everyone from kids to grandmas in the audience," Leno remarked. "Whenever I've told this story, kids seemed to think it was hilarious."

The book opens as Leno's father prepares for his latest home-improvement project: a new backyard patio and rotisserie. Young Jay tags along during the construction process, and when the rotisserie is unveiled at a big party, Jay's curiosity gets the best of him. As a roast turns on the spit, Jay scoops up the drippings with his pocket comb, which eventually gets stuck in the meat and begins to melt. As Leno recalled on MSNBC Online, "When my dad brought the roast beef out, he started to cut it and then—clunk! A big piece of plastic fell off and the meat was pink underneath." Leno's father was so angry he threw the roast outside, where the family dog quickly gobbled it up.

If Roast Beef Could Fly received mixed reviews. Some critics believed that the book's tone is loud and exaggerated; School Library Journal contributor Martha Topol wrote that the work seems "mired in excess," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor observed that Leno's tale "is told at the top of the authorial lungs, with no modulation in tone whatsoever." A Publishers Weekly reviewer offered praise for the work, however, stating that the comedian's "talent for storytelling and affection for his family shines through."

In 2002 Leno celebrated his tenth anniversary as host of the Tonight Show, and maintained that he had no intention of stopping. As he told Stephen Battaglio of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "I'll do it as long as they want me to do it." His rare absences from the show were precipitated by serious illness; otherwise, he continued to appear at his interviewer's desk five nights each week. While Leno retained a staff to help him prepare monologues and other well-known bits, he also contributed mightily to the writing of each episode, often completing the next night's monologue after finishing a show. As Leno once told a People contributor, "When I was a kid growing up … I had dyslexia. My mother told me that I would always have to work twice as hard as the other kids just to get the same grades. It's the same now. I'm not better than anybody else doing this job; I just think maybe I work harder than some."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Adler, Bill, The World of Jay Leno: His Humor and His Life, Carol Publishing (New York, NY), 1992.

Carter, Bill, The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1994.

Contemporary Newsmakers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

Leno, Jay, and Bill Zehme, Leading with My Chin, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.

Leno, Jay, editor, Headlines: Real but Ridiculous Samplings from America's Newspapers, Warner (New York, NY), 1989.

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.

Walker, Jay, The Leno Wit: His Life and Humor, Morrow (New York, NY), 1997.


Advertising Age, May 25, 1992, p. 24; November 30, 1993, pp. 1-3.

Booklist, January 1, 1990, p. 870.

Boston, May, 1992, pp. 16-21.

Cosmopolitan, December, 1993, pp. 70-72; May, 1996, pp. 180-185.

Entertainment Weekly, August 14, 1992, pp. 20-27; February 11, 1994, p. 63; April 22, 1994, p. 12; November 3, 1995, p. 19; March 15, 1996, p. 52; October 11, 1996, pp. 84-85; November 8, 1996, p. 11.

Esquire, October, 1995, pp. 98-105.

Hollywood Reporter, May 2, 2002, Barry Garron, "Leno: Tenth Anniversary," p. 10.

Insight on the News, July 22, 1991, pp. 42-44.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2004, review of If Roast Beef Could Fly, p. 273.

Kliatt, January, 1991, p. 55.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, April 17, 2002, Stephen Battaglio, "Tireless Comic Jay Leno to Mark Ten Years as Tonight Host," p. K7195.

Ladies' Home Journal, February, 1997, p. 166.

Life, November, 1993, p. 100.

Newsweek, June 29, 1992, p. 56; January 25, 1993, pp. 60-63.

New Yorker, November 9, 1992, pp. 46-65.

New York Times, January 30, 1994, p. 28; September 24, 2000, Marshall Sella, "The Stiff Guy vs. the Dumb Guy," p. 72.

New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1996, p. 24.

O, February, 2003, "Oprah Talks to Jay Leno," pp. 138-144.

People, December 24, 1990, pp. 56-59; August 23, 1993, pp. 46-49; October 14, 1996, p. 39; May 6, 2002, Michael A. Lipton and Pamela Warrick, "Funny Man at Work," p. 64; April 19, 2004, "Jay Leno," p. 24.

Playboy, December, 1990, pp. 57-69; October, 1996, pp. 51-60.

Publishers Weekly, January 15, 1996, p. 320; March 8, 2004, review of If Roast Beef Could Fly, p. 72, and Shannon Maughan, "Where's the Beef?," p. 73.

Redbook, July, 1992, pp. 48-51.

School Library Journal, June, 2004, Martha Topol, review of If Roast Beef Could Fly, pp. 112-113.

Time, March 16, 1992, pp. 58-62.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 14, 1990, p. 4.

TV Guide, April 11, 1992, pp. 16-21; August 15, 1992, p. 27; January 30, 1993, pp. 49-51; August 28, 1993, pp. 18-23; October 22, 1994, pp. 28-33; October 5, 1996, pp. 14-22; April 13, 2002, Jason Gay, "The Hardest-working, Least Talked about, Most Popular Man in Show Business," p. 16.

Vanity Fair, July, 1991, pp. 48-50.

Variety, May 29, 2000, Peter Bart, "Building the Leno Legend," p. 2.

Washingtonian, November, 1993, pp. 76-80.

Woman's Day, March 10, 1992, pp. 36-40.


E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/ (September 20, 2004), "Jay Leno."

MSNBC Online, http://msnbc.msn.com/ (March 22, 2004), "Jay Leno Publishes Storybook."

NBC Web site, http://www.nbc.com/ (September 20, 2004), "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."*

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