Leno's paradox

The chat-show host Jay Leno says there are only a few celebrities who pull in an audience. Lucy Rouse spoke to him as his programme is aired on British TV
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Jay Leno, host of the top-rating US talk show, reckons that there are just 18 guests in the world who make a difference to an average TV chat show. It's a curious figure, considering the ever-expanding number of celebrities in the world and the hours of TV filled with chat shows.

Jay Leno, host of the top-rating US talk show, reckons that there are just 18 guests in the world who make a difference to an average TV chat show. It's a curious figure, considering the ever-expanding number of celebrities in the world and the hours of TV filled with chat shows.

In the UK alone, we have Michael Parkinson and Jonathan Ross on BBC1 (the latter consciously styled on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno), Johnny Vaughan languishing on BBC3 and, of course, nightly outings for Graham Norton on Channel 4. Now Leno is in the mix too, airing on UK TV for the first time on the cable and satellite channel FTN.

Leno insists: "When you think about it, can you name 18 stars that you would watch?" Never mind whether I can; can he?

"There are the ones you know: Madonna, Hugh Grant and these people," he says. "But after that, [people from] television and supermodels. They're popular – they just don't bring people to the set."

But after 10 years hosting The Tonight Show, he must be able to add more names to the list. Leno begins to struggle: "English guests tend to be the best because they know how to talk. Michael Caine is a great guest – obviously you've got great stories. Hugh Grant is excellent."

Grant famously helped boost Leno to the top-rating spot above his arch-rival, the chat-show veteran David Letterman. The Four Weddings... star appeared on Leno's show just days after being nabbed on LA's Sunset Strip with the prostitute Divine Brown. Leno opened by quipping: "What the hell were you thinking?" In doing so, he voiced the thoughts of the world and hasn't looked back since.

But back to that dream guest list. Surely Leno can be a little more specific? After all, 18 is a pretty specific number. When pushed, Leno adds Tom Cruise to the list. Michael Jackson would be barely acceptable to Leno. "He's a little creepy for me. I had dinner with him once – it wasn't just me and him, it was maybe nine or so. The chef comes in and puts a plate of food down. He [Jackson] doesn't touch it and we're all, like, waiting. Then a guy in a turban and a moustache comes out and opens what seems like a glasses case and takes out a fork. He tries everything on the plate. Does this for, like, four minutes. And then Michael eats. I'm, like, 'Who's trying to poison you?' That's a little odd."

And although Leno is often scathing about George Bush's politics in the 11-minute monologues that kick off his show every night, he's happy to have the President as a guest. "I like George Bush; he's been on – he's all right. He's quintessentially American." But, generally, Leno is withering about the disposability of guests in a world where chat shows filmed daily in the heart of Hollywood devour show-business icons. "This is a bit like raising laboratory mice. If this batch is no good, well there's another one tomorrow."

He is proud to be "a comedian who happens to have a talk show". Half his hour-long show is his own material (supplemented by his 18-strong team of writers who, between them, work a 24-hour shift). And Leno still does up to 150 live gigs a year, often right after he's finished taping the show for the day at 6pm.

But earning a reported $12m a year from his NBC contract makes life extremely comfortable for Leno, regardless of the extra "ton of dough" he gets paid for his stand-up routines. He's disingenuous about where his millions go. "I live on the money I make as a comedian, and all that money [from NBC] goes in banks or something." Yet he owns more than 160 classic cars and motorbikes – so many that he has to store them in an aircraft hangar. Clearly, when it comes to tales of his own life, Leno is every bit the raconteur he expects his guests to be.

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