During the thirteen years that I was a staff writer for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” NBC featured a tremendous number of athletes on the program, even though Jay possibly knew less about sports than almost any human on the planet.
You name the sport and we had athletes and/or coaches on the show. From the NFL, to the XFL, to college football, to the NBA, to the World Series MVP, to gold medal-winning Olympic athletes.
Leno faked and fumbled his way through the interviews by asking probing non-sports questions (“Are you seeing anyone?” “How’s your mom?”) and using an elaborate set of notes in case anything came up that he didn’t know - for example, how many points a touchdown is worth or what’s meant by the word “dribble.”
One of the show’s most popular guests in the 1990s was athlete-turned-commentator Terry Bradshaw. I recall one Bradshaw interview when the subject of the Heisman Trophy came up and Terry did a serviceable Heisman pose. Jay howled with laughter. Of course nearly everyone in the studio audience was probably at least somewhat familiar with the Heisman pose, but not Jay who did his own Heisman pose several times as if it was the funniest thing he’d seen.
Leno and Bradshaw had this weird, goofball chemistry. The collective IQ in the studio dropped 30 points when they were together. How stupid did they act? Picture Curly and Moe if Larry called in sick. In fact they were both quite intelligent and had to fake the dumb thing. Bradshaw was a terrific guest/foil for Jay since he played unbelievably stupid, stupider than most farm animals, yet still couldn’t suppress his shock and disdain when Jay didn’t know the simplest thing about sports.
To say Jay’s football knowledge was lacking would be a gargantuan understatement. I once wrote a joke referencing football players holding hands in a huddle. Jay called me into his office.
“Oh, Dickson, football players really hold hands in a huddle?”
Me: “Yeah, Jay, occasionally they do.”
Jay, looking suspicious: “What is that - some kind of gay thing?”
Me: “No, I think it’s more of a brotherhood thing.”
After returning from the morning production meeting Jay summoned me back to his office.
Jay: “You’re right! They really do hold hands in the huddle, I checked it out! We can have some fun with this.”
Leno was so excited I almost didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t a new phenomenon and had been going on since before helmets had face masks.
Sammy Sosa appeared on “The Tonight Show” during Sosa’s heyday. At the time Sosa wasn’t doing much press and the opportunities were enormous. There were so many ways to approach this, from the chasing Roger Maris’ record angle to the feud/friendship with Mark McGwire angle to the “Why have your biceps grown five more inches since last weekend?” angle to the “How much juice would you have to take to leap over the Sears Tower?” angle. Most mainstream sports media outlets could only dream of getting Sosa to sit down for an interview.
Instead of the revelatory come-to-Jesus moment everyone was hoping against hope for Sosa gave pat responses in fractured English to mostly innocuous questions.
I don’t recall the exact words but a typical Leno-Sosa exchange went something like this:
Leno: “So, have you ever run all the way around all six bases without stopping?”
Sosa: “Well, me run fast for my team hopscotch porcupine” before trailing off into something in Spanish.
Jay was as qualified to ask intriguing questions about baseball of Sammy Sosa as Snooki is to explain cold fusion.
Jay just wasn’t interested in sports, except for NASCAR and maybe boxing. The producers who wrote Leno’s non-ad-libbed questions recognized this and tried to keep it simple. Since it was a late night program the emphasis was firmly on light-hearted comedy.
NBC persisted in having our talent bookers invite athlete after athlete on the show. It was as if the network thought “The Tonight Show” was hosted by Dick Enberg or Bob Costas. Despite his lack of sports acumen Jay did manage to achieve a sort of good ole boy repartee with many of them.
And athletes tended to draw good Nielsen ratings. If peeping Toms or Central Park flashers garnered good ratings NBC would have featured them. It was all about ratings.
Not all athletes played along with Jay and put up with the sometimes inane questions and comments. I remember an NFL player - I think it may have been Troy Aikman - sort of glaring at Jay after a perceived ridiculous question, probably something like “Has a center ever farted on you?”
A sample, hypothetical exchange between Jay and a coach who just led his team to victory in the Super Bowl:
Jay: “Congratulations, coach! OK, first of all: is Gatorade sticky?”
The coach, chuckling: “Well...what?”
Jay: “When they dump it on you after the game ends - the Gatorade - is it sticky?”
The coach: “Oh. Kind of, but it’s worth it after all the hard work we put in. I attribute the win to coming together as a team. The toughest part was probably winning the NFC championship after falling behind 14 points.”
The coach: “But I need to thank all our fans.”
Jay: “OK. Thanks, you guys! So, how’s your mom?”
Another highlight was a kid from a U.S. winning Little League World Series team after Leno asked an entire string of questions about girls at school wanting to be friendly with the players now that they were world champions. The exasperated, slightly embarrassed kid said something like, “I thought we were here to talk about baseball!” It got a big laugh from the studio audience which is really all that mattered.
Lance Armstrong was a regular guest and favorite of Jay’s. Jay loved the perceived black and whiteness of Armstrong’s good guy story about recovering from cancer and winning all those Tour de Frances clean while defeating the other riders who were all using enough performance enhancing drugs to kill a whale. To be fair almost everybody in the country bought Armstrong’s story back then.
Nearly everything about Armstrong’s “Tonight Show” appearances reeked of phoniness. Once Lance was discussing his Livestrong Foundation and Jay said, “I wonder - does anybody in the studio audience happen to have a Livestrong bracelet?” The camera panned to the audience where every single person was miraculously sporting a yellow Livestrong bracelet. Jay feigned surprise and said something like “Wow! They all do!”
There were so many people from sports booked on the show that we couldn’t feature them all as guests so we worked them into skits.
Once we had on a surly Tommy Lasorda who came in early to do a walk-through for a sketch involving a dunk tank. On the actual show Tommy was to toss a baseball and attempt to send Leno into the drink. During afternoon rehearsal with an intern sitting in for Leno, Lasorda was supposed to just throw the ball near the button. Instead Lasorda reared back and fired one of the greatest fastballs ever seen, a pitch Nolan Ryan could not have made on his best day, nailing the button with a center strike and sending the unpaid intern plummeting into the drink as Lasorda howled with laughter. The intern, a feisty 18-year-old who was working for college credit, shouted “Prick!” as he climbed out of the tank soaking wet and we braced ourselves for the strangest brawl in baseball history.
When people ask me my favorite moments of working at “The Tonight Show” I usually mention the Lasorda story and the night the rock group Black Crowes flushed tennis balls down all the toilets flooding the studio. Oh, and the time that a thief stole Carrot Top’s box of props before he was supposed to go on. And the night that Oscar De La Hoya performed with his music group and I spotted several audience members with their hands covering their ears.
Jay was much better suited to talking to musicians, comics, actors and actresses or, for that matter, politicians than he was athletes. The program featured lots of people from politics of whom Jay asked tough, smart questions which he often wrote himself. There was a real dichotomy. One minute Leno would be asking an intricate question on proposed tax cuts of a presidential candidate and a few minutes later would segue to asking a professional athlete if he ever peed inside his uniform.
After relentlessly hammering the Clippers nightly for their futility after they lost 17 straight games to begin the 1998 season someone came up with the idea of inviting the entire team to the show. So one night ten or eleven Clippers, pretty much every player but Eric Piatkowski, filtered on stage after Leno did a Clippers joke in the monologue and ominously surrounded him. This bit was funny probably because the Clippers didn’t have to fake the being pissed part.
I certainly couldn’t blame them. A sample monologue joke written by yours truly:
“The murder rate in Los Angeles has dropped 30 percent. Pretty much the only people getting killed in town are the L.A. Clippers.”
Thanks in part to Hugh Grant’s dalliance with prostitute Divine Brown and Jay creating an iconic pop culture moment when the first thing he asked Grant was, “What the hell were you thinking?” “The Tonight Show” had surged past David Letterman’s show and into the number one spot in late night. I always thought it would’ve been appropriate if the last person Jay thanked after winning an Emmy was Brown. “...And I’d like to thank my wife and my producer and God, and of course, the person who made this all possible, Hollywood Boulevard hooker Divine ‘The Human Vacuum Cleaner’ Brown.”
“The Tonight Show” had taken a lead over Letterman due to Grant being unable to keep his pants up but that lead was tenuous.
Ironically it was an ex-athlete who propelled Leno into consistently beating Letterman. After O.J. Simpson was arrested in 1993 and charged with double murder, Jay, who had great instincts about what his audience would enjoy, intuitively recognized it as a terrific opportunity. While the late night competition tip-toed around this sensitive topic we jumped all over it with irreverent, some would say tasteless, glee. We were in L.A. and the slow speed Bronco chase took place in our backyard.
Jay’s decision to devote half his show to the Simpson case turned out to be brilliant even though I’m pretty sure that midway through the trial Jay asked me what position O.J. had played.
The nadir of Leno’s relationship with sports occurred when someone came up with the not-so-brilliant idea of featuring Jay in a professional wrestling tag team match, on an actual wrestling card at an actual arena, pairing up with Diamond Dallas Page to take on regular “Tonight Show” guest Hulk Hogan and Hogan’s manager Eric Bischoff. The taped match aired on “The Tonight Show” a few days later.
It was tough for Leno to deny criticism that he had dumbed down his shtick while Hogan had him in a collar-elbow hook up. When Hogan felled Jay with a leg drop and put him in a camel clutch it dawned on me just how much talk shows had changed since Dick Cavett interviewed Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal.
Ah, to have been a fly on the wall when NBC executives were watching their franchise player who brought in $100 million in annual net revenue for the network get pile driven into the ring canvas by the 6-8, 300-pound Hogan followed by a maniacal Bischoff dragging Leno around the ring by his gray trusses. (All of this still seemed less fake than the Lance Armstrong Livestrong bracelet incident.)
Diamond Dallas had the good sense to go MIA for a good chunk of the match as Leno was pounded on by Hogan and Bischoff. Leno hadn’t taken a beating like this since the last time TV Guide reviewed the show.
But, much like in his rivalry with Letterman, Leno somehow managed to pick himself off the mat, turn things around and gain the upper hand. There’s a lesson here for young people and that lesson is - well, let me get back to you.
Leno eventually pinned Bischoff to win the championship which seemed slightly less plausible than if Mini Me had won the NBA slam dunk contest. Pro wrestling purists and “Tonight Show” staffers could be heard grumbling on the other side of the world.
Still, the parade of athletes continued on the show and Jay continued to display very little sports knowledge. In fact I’m pretty sure at the end of his long, successful run as “Tonight Show” host he knew almost as little about sports as he did at the beginning, even though we counted a number of famous athletes as our most frequent and best liked guests.