Move to 10 p.m. another day at the office for Jay Leno

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I have to admit a bias: it always shocks the bleep out of me when talent appears to understand how TV works.

Thus, I’m impressed – and perhaps too easily – that workaholic Jay Leno is not oblivious to the fact that his new 10 p.m. timeslot on NBC means he needs to perform for the sake of NBC’s owned stations and affiliates.

“We’re going to do a lot more comedy in the last half-hour,” he said today on a conference call with reporters. “People like the monologue, the headlines, things like Jay-walking, and some of the bits that we do. The real trick is what we do in the second half hour. Although my job previous to this was to give Conan [O’Brien] a good lead-in, now it’s really important that I give a good lead-in to stations’ 11 o’clock news. That’s really where they make their money.”

Leno thinks that robust lead-in is possible because his show represents good counter-programming. “I enjoy the 10 p.m. dramas – the CSIs and Law & Orders – but there really isn’t any comedy at 10 pm. Right now, everything is very serious. It’s all murder.”

Leno also touted some of NBC’s favorite facts about this new Leno-at-10 p.m. plan — his show will be in originals five nights a week, 44 weeks a year, and still cost much less than the standard dramatic hour. Conversely, CSI is only in originals 22-24 weeks a year and only once per week at that.

The flip side of that fact is a truism in TV advertising: less is more. More Leno means more ad avails, which means each ad avail costs less. An original CSI is a far rarer thing, and that forces CSI’s ad rates through the roof.

Still, if you’re going to have a guy working to turn your failed 10 p.m. hour into a cash cow, Leno’s your man. The guy is incredibly proud that he hates vacations and hasn’t really ever taken one. He considers his recent hospital stay — for exhaustion, hello — a vacation, and one he still resents at that.

He told this story on the conference call: he and his (long-suffering, in my opinion) wife took a quick trip to Hawaii because Leno had a gig there. They left on a Friday and planned to stay for one whole entire weekend, giving the Lenos like a day and a half in paradise. Leno sat on a gorgeous, pristine Hawaiian beach for 15 minutes and was so convinced that he’d been there for three hours that he decided his watch broke and asked a passerby what time it was. Upon learning that in fact only 15 minutes had gone by, he returned to his hotel, got his wife, and packed up. “We were on a plane back here by noon.”

My marriage would have either been over at that moment, or I would have just continued my vacation without my wacko workaholic husband. Who needs that guy anyway? For a comedian, he sounds like a huge buzzkill.

“If I’m faced with being stranded in the middle of an ocean with some fat Americans and a mai-tai, I’m like get me out of here,” he said. Note the difference between me and Jay Leno: I’m all about beaches in the middle of nowhere and mai-tais. I’m just happy to be one of the fat Americans that gets to be there.

Even with that work ethic, Leno claims to have his head on straight where entertainment is concerned. “The real trick about show business is to not get too excited and to not get too depressed. You don’t fall in love with a hooker.” I gotta give Jay credit for that line.

He continued: “I don’t let it become my life, I try not to absorb it. If nothing else happens in my life from here on out, I can say my run on The Tonight Show was great and I’m thrilled about it. I’m not one of those guys who thinks that if it all falls apart I won’t have my table at Morton’s any longer. I don’t go to Morton’s; I go to In ‘N’ Out Burger.”

Of course, this is coming from the guy who – I have always heard – banks his entire paycheck and lives off what he earns from his other job, which is performing at comedy clubs across the country.

Leno attributes all this level-headedness and workaholism to insecurity. “If you have low self-esteem and you always assume you are the dumbest person in the room, you’ll work harder.”

That doesn’t explain Jeff Zucker, but I’ll buy it coming from Leno. I’m not totally sure I believe that showbiz hasn’t gotten to him – do you hate vacations because you don’t really care about show business? – but I appreciate his attempts to appear relatable.

NBC’s betting on the fact that Leno’s hard work and his everyman likeability can bring the funny, thus keeping NBC in play in the 10 p.m. hour. My own personal jury is still out on this one, but I hope Zucker and Co. are right. In last night’s Lost finale, Juliet quoted a line from another Lost finale: “Live together. Die alone.”

That might have been the credo of the TV business in years past – just read a story about almost any HRTS luncheon with the network presidents in recent years – but the time has come to flip that saying on its head. Go with God, Jay. And for that same God’s sake, take a vacation first.

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