My Tonight Show With Jay Leno Experience

During the week of September 1st 2013 my wife, Lisa, and I went to Los Angeles, CA to attend live tapings of three late-night talk shows over four days. This is the third part of our journey…

Before collecting sets of Conan tickets, before picking up Late Late Show tickets, before accidentally winning Late Night tickets and before being chosen to receive Late Show tickets, I was the highest bidder on for tickets to see The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Yeah, I know. One could successfully argue that, of all the late-night talk shows to visit, The Tonight Show shouldn’t have been my top priority, never mind paying for the privilege. Shut up and lemme explain.

Instead of resolving to better myself physically or mentally when 2013 began, I decided it was finally time to see a live taping of one of the shows I had been watching and reviewing for the past four years. I made an educated guess that neither Letterman nor Leno would be hosting their shows too much longer, so in January I put in a request for Late Show tickets through their website and started watching auctions for Tonight Show tickets. After observing a few auctions I jumped into the trenches. Happily, I came out with a pair of reasonably priced tickets. Not only that, but my purchase put me on the “Guest List.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the reason I’ve been willing to pay for tickets that are normally extremely free is that these tickets allow me to pick the date of the show I want to see. Since I can’t just hop in a car and drive to Los Angeles with a week’s notice, having the opportunity to plan a trip months in advance for an event I’ll only be able to do once in my lifetime is worth spending a few bucks to accomplish.

September 4th was a very hot day in LA. I remember this because NBC didn’t offer any type of parking on or near the studio lot. You either found a spot on the street or paid for the privilege to occupy space on someone else’s bed of gravel. I know complaining about parking to see a television show is extremely petty, but considering we had enjoyed free covered parking courtesy of CBS and Warner Brothers the previous two days, and The Tonight Show is still considered the late-night flagship, it just seemed kinda cheap on NBC’s part not to provide the same amenity. Also, I’m not above being extremely petty at least once a day, or even twice.

Speaking of negative feelings about stuff, there is a common subject in each of my late-night experiences that I haven’t written about until now. I wouldn’t have brought it up in this post either if everything had gone according to my liking. But it didn’t, so I’m going to discuss it here.

Gift giving.

Each time I’ve been to a taping of a late-night talk show I’ve brought with me copies of Woody After Hours Volume 1: Live From Downtown Raleigh, North Carolina to give as presents to the host and specific members of his posse. Every book has included an original sketch by Paul and a personal inscription from me. At each show I have entrusted these gifts to staff members or interns, and asked them to please pass them on to whoever can then pass them on to whoever can then pass them on to who they were meant for. Have any of my books ever reached their intended targets? Who knows. I’ve never been followed up with and thanked, so I’m thinking the answer is “no.” I still hold out hope that at least one of the people I respect and admire did or will eventually receive a book. Hey, at least I tried.

I worked with a nice lady at NBC Guest Relations to schedule the date of The Tonight Show episode my wife and I would see. During our conversation I explained that I had co-authored a book and wanted to bring copies to the show and give them as gifts to Jay Leno and Debbie Vickers. While you no doubt know who Jay is, you’ve probably never heard of Debbie. Debbie produces The Tonight Show. She has been with Jay since the beginning and through all the ups and downs of the past twenty years. She also worked for Johnny Carson when he hosted The Tonight Show before Jay. She is an amazing person.

The nice lady informed me that I shouldn’t bring any gifts, as their policy stated that no one at the studio was allowed to accept them. “You’re better off mailing them to the studio,” she said.

Screw that! I didn’t make the huge effort to acquire tickets, travel all the way to LA, see the show and bring copies of my book to then be told to turn around and mail them. Where’s the personal connection or feeling of satisfaction in that? A Late Night staff member had told me the same thing the day Paul and I were at 30 Rock, and I still found a way to deliver them. Surely, I thought, I could find a reasonable soul at The Tonight Show who would be intelligent enough to see that my book was not a WMD, but was worthy of being passed on to whoever can then pass them to whoever can then pass them to who they were meant for.

TS_waiting_outside_studio2I’ll never know if such a person existed, however. As I walked through security I ran into a detail-oriented guard who decided that doing her job was more important than my happiness. She opened my backpack and saw the books. She pondered their significance silently for a while. “Was this a vital threat?” she thought to herself. “Were these books part of a horrible plan to do terrible things here at NBC?” Then she noticed the note stuck to one of the covers that clearly read “Jay Leno.” It became very clear to her that these books were, in fact, a terrible evil that must be stopped at all costs. “You can’t give this to Jay,” she said. “Ok,” I replied. “I won’t.” It turns out my response wasn’t good enough. “You can’t bring these in,” she continued. “You can either leave them here at your own risk until the show is over or you can take them back to your car.”

I have to admit that, even though I had been warned not to attempt to do what I had just attempted to do, this really pissed me off. My book was not some baked good or sealed box containing sharp objects or pictures of me fondling a Leno-like wad of denim. This was my book. I had a lot of pride in it, and I wanted the chance to share it with the people I admired while attending their performances. Instead, I had no choice but to leave the NBC lot and return my gifts to the car because the people at The Tonight Show are easily scared by the possibility of paper cuts.

I shouldn’t have let this setback sour the experience, but it did. I spent the next two hours quietly fuming. It didn’t help, by the way, that the majority of ticket holders were able to sit on benches under mist sprayers while we, the chosen few on the “Guest List” had to stand the entire time, or that they had sold out of my t-shirt size a long time ago and weren’t printing any more because Leno was leaving in five months.

Finally, at some point, they let the first fifty or so people enter the building. These somewhat fortunate ones were seated in the three rows between the actual audience section and the front of the stage. They were also the only people allowed to rush the stage and high five Leno when he came out to start the show. I had asked the nice lady at NBC Guest Relations if our tickets allowed us to occupy that section as well. She informed me that, while those seats were great for the first ten minutes of the show, they weren’t great for the rest of it because the cameras would be on the stage in front of them. In other words, like at Conan the previous day, our seats would be higher up in the audience so that we’d have an unobstructed view of the whole show.

Then it was our turn to enter the studio and be seated. There were probably eight or ten of us on the “Guest List.” Lisa and I were first, so we were led to two seats  in the fourth row on the stage right side of the exact middle of the center audience section. The rest of the row we were in was taped off for people so special they didn’t even have to stand in line outside for two hours like the rest of us did, so the fact that we were sharing their row was pretty cool.

They were great seats. We had a terrific view of the entire set with the exception of the house band area. The rest of the “Guest List,” meanwhile, were seated in various rows on the stage left side of the exact middle of the center audience section.  They had a great view of the house band, but not such a great view of the desk and couch, and practically no view of where the musical guest performed. Getting there early and being first in line had paid off.

Unfortunately there never were any good shots of us during the show. I think we’re possibly the pixel blobs I have circled in these two shots:



Despite all the whining I’ve been doing in this post, I will say that the set really is very impressive. Not since The Late Show set have I seen a set as grand.

We watched videos of past musical performances while the rest of the audience trickled in. It was a nice way to pass the time and help me forgot how crabby I was.

The Tonight Show warm-up comedian was Don Reed. He was very energetic, charismatic and reasonably comical. He did not, however, tell any jokes or interact with specific people in the audience other than to throw them souvenirs. This was different than all my previous experiences, as all the other late-night warm-up comedians told tons of jokes, but not strange when you consider who he was warming us up for. Leno is first and foremost a stand-up comedian. He takes immense pride in his ability to write jokes and deliver his monologue. Having his warm-up comedian tell jokes before him would have taken away from what Jay has said is his favorite part of the show.

After Don was done telling us the rules (the most important rule was to not heckle Jay during the monologue, fyi) and getting us excited, Jay came out in his blue denim shirt and jeans to welcome the audience. I really appreciated him doing that. Letterman had done it, but Fallon, Ferguson and Conan hadn’t, and I had always wished they had made the effort to connect with the audience willing to see them. Leno then took two questions.. Both, not surprisingly, were requests for pictures with him. He happily obliged. I had almost worked up the nerve to yell out if I could go back to my car and bring in the gifts I had brought for him and Debbie, but Leno had to get ready to start the show.

A few minutes later Don introduced Rickey Minor and The Tonight Show Band. They played a song or two. Then, after a few last words from Don about being as excited as we possibly can be, the show started.

The monologue was ok, but not as entertaining as usual. Here was my favorite joke:

President Obama is asking Congress to support a military strike in Syria. If they approve it it’ll be the first time Congress has officially declared war since Obamacare.

The comedy segment was Prank You Very Much:

Remember when I gloated about Lisa and I having better seats then the rest of the people on the “Guest List?” Well, the comedy segment took place in the exact area we would have sat in if we hadn’t been first in our line. We had great seats, but we missed the opportunity to be inches away from Leno and on television.

Fun fact: the people whose videos were shown got to walk on the set after the show was over. I’m guessing they probably got a behind the scenes tour of the studio too.

Christina Applegate was first couch guest. She is in the upcoming movie Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. The interview was fine. Christina was nice and told some interesting stories. Maybe it’s just me, but she looked kinda depressed through the whole segment. Then again, maybe she was just tired. At one point she made a joke about not having worked for the last year. She might have been kidding, but she might be struggling too. Here’s the interview:

Rob Corddry was second couch guest. He stars on the television show Childrens Hospital and is in the film In A World. The interview was good. Rob was funny and told some amusing stories. Here’s the interview:

White Lies was the musical guest. They gave a nice performance:

After White Lies was done Jay thanked his guests and said “good night” to the camera. The show was over.

Almost immediately Christina, Rob and the members of White Lies joined Leno while he did five promos for local affiliates around the country. As far as I know Leno is the only late-night show host to do these. He’s been doing promos for twenty years now. They are part of what endears Leno to independent stations around the Midwest, which helped immensely when NBC was trying to decide whether or not they should return The Tonight Show to him when Conan was the host.

When Jay he was done he thanked us for coming and then said “goodbye.” We all got up and headed out.

Thanks for reading.

– Ben

Want to read about my other late-night audience member experiences? Well, if you ever change your mind, here they are:

My Late Show With David Letterman Experience

My Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Experience

My Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson Experience

My Two Conan Experiences

My Second Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson Experience

My Late Night With Seth Meyers Experience

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