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Back in the day, before late night shows turned into political lectures devoid of humor, comedy was something people would look forward to before turning in. No matter how bad your workday was, you could count on Johnny Carson to make you laugh.

But of course Johnny wasn’t there every single night and had guest hosts over the years. David Letterman, Joan Rivers and Jay Leno were regulars.

So when I had a chance to visit the Tonight Show set and interview Leno, I turned into a fan. Leno had come to our station a few years earlier and done the weather, which was hilarious. “Why are you telling viewers what happened yesterday? Don’t you think they know?”

In the late 1980s, NBC had press junkets, in which affiliates sent a crew to Hollywood to interview a bunch of stars the network wanted to promote. In 1989, I was sent to La-La Land for a few days with a laundry list of celebrities to interview. I could only imagine what it was like for these people to do dozens of interviews with local reporters and answer the same questions over and over.

Most of those we met were genuinely nice people. Pat Sajak and Vanna White fit into that category. Sajak arrived backstage with two filled grocery bags (“I bring snacks for the crew”), and Vanna was exactly the same as the woman you see on TV. Taurean Blacque from Hill Street Blues was extremely accommodating. I can’t say the same for a “beloved” game show host who shall remain nameless and ranks as the rudest celebrity I ever met.

On the day we were set to interview Jay Leno, I got a call from his publicist. “Unfortunately Jay won’t be able to meet you on the Tonight Show set.”

My heart sank. I was a huge fan and really looking forward to it. Until the publicist said this:

“He’s got a tight schedule today … could you do us a really huge favor and meet him at his house in Beverly Hills?”

Hills that is. Swimmin’ pools. Movie stars.

And of course, the location of Leno’s famous car collection.

We couldn’t believe our good fortune. We drove to his home, which was at the bottom of a very long, steep driveway, and found him in a work shirt. (Like an idiot, I was in a suit and tie.) He greeted us and thanked us for coming to his home to save him some time. Hey, we figured we got the better part of the deal. We quickly set up for an interview, figuring he didn’t have much time.

Once the interview was done, I couldn’t help myself. “Any chance we could get a few quick shots of your car collection?”

Leno lit up. “Sure, no problem!” He led us to his huge garage and opened it, revealing a sea of classics. My jaw dropped. I’ve always loved old cars, which had much more character than what we drive today. But these were rare vintage autos I’d never seen at local car shows. Our photographer walked between the cars, taking shots of each one, while Leno told me their history. A true gearhead, he is legendary for working on his own cars. One in particular caught my eye, a blue convertible that was extremely rare.

Leno was not in a hurry as he proudly showed off his collection. “You guys need anything else? Promos? Still shots?”

“Could we do a quick promo with one of your cars?”

“Sure, let me pull one out into the driveway. You really liked the blue convertible.”

I looked at the cars and noted it was way in the back. “Don’t go to all that trouble, you’d have to move a bunch of cars just to get it out.”

“Eh, not a problem.” Jay Leno then set about moving about a half dozen cars just to get that blue convertible out into the sunlight. Then we did a promo with him playing the mechanic while I asked him what was wrong with the car.

It was clear he was enjoying this. As we finished shooting the promo, he said, “What else do you need?”

“Couple of still shots?”

“Sure. Why don’t we take some pictures by the pool?”

So he and I sat together in the back yard while the photographer took some photos.

By the time we packed up, we’d been there an hour. 

When Johnny Carson announced he would retire in 1992, I was rooting for Jay Leno to get the job. He did and continued to make America laugh just as Carson did.

And every time I watched him, I couldn’t help but think of that amazing day we spent at his home.

Sometimes nice guys do finish first.

Randy Tatano is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow, and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.

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