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James Douglas Muir "Jay" Leno was born to Cathryn and Angelo Leno in New Rochelle, New York on April 28, 1950. Even as a youngster, he displayed an obvious talent for comedy, telling jokes and pranking classmates. "If Jay spent as much time studying as he does trying to be a comedian," his fifth-grade report card observed, "he'd be a big star." The note would prove prophetic. After a move to Andover, Massachusetts, Jay graduated high school and then went on to receive his bachelor's degree in speech therapy from Emerson College in 1973.
After college, Leno devoted himself to writing and performing, taking his act on the road, and eventually opening for the likes of Tom Jones and John Denver. His schedule often exceeded 300 dates per year; audiences were drawn to his "everyman" persona and topical humor; he remains in high demand as a headliner on the nightclub comedy circuit to this day.
After moving to Los Angeles, Leno landed jobs performing and writing for TV and film (including a memorable kiss with Fran Drescher in "American Hot Wax") but really became a nationally recognized face as a spokesman for Doritos tortilla chips. On March 2, 1977 he made the first of what would be dozens of appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Carson named him his permanent guest host in 1987 and five years later, Leno took over the host chair full-time after Johnny retired in May of 1992.
As it was for his idol Johnny Carson, Leno's opening monologue remains a hallmark, with its skewering but good-natured take on the day's events. His comedic timing, topicality, and ability to connect with everyday issues remain keys to his popularity. His show also includes numerous original bits and sketches, including trademark segments "Jaywalking," "Ebay's Sold or Not Sold," and "Headlines."
Leno's early shows featured such diverse guest pairings as Itzhak Perlman booked on the same night as singer Meatloaf, and Baywatch star David Hasselhoff appearing with rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (and newcomer Johnny Depp). His landmark interview with a scandal-ridden Hugh Grant drew a huge audience and put Jay atop the ratings. Throughout his run, Leno has maintained the Tonight Show tradition of showcasing rising talent. From (then) up-and-comers Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johanssen, to twelve-year-old Lindsay Lohan and nine-year-old Hayden Pantierre, stars recognize that an appearance on the Tonight Show is a both a right of passage and recognition of genuine talent.
In addition to star-power, the "Tonight Show" production team searches for the most interesting "civilian" guests, such as kid inventors and individuals with quirky talents and funny stories. As they did with Johnny Carson, viewers delight when Leno comes face to face with exotic and unpredictable animals.
The program is also a proven barometer of political clout. Arnold Schwarzenegger first announced his bid for California Governor to Jay. In 2008, then presidential hopeful Barrack Obama and his wife Michelle made appearances as did rival candidates John McCain, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Fred Thompson, John Edwards, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Dennis Kucinich.
After 17 years hosting The Tonight Show, Jay passed the baton to Conan O'Brien on May 29th, 2009. But he is hardly going away; NBC has announced that starting September 14th, 2009, Jay Leno will return with a new nightly one-hour show in primetime. Although the official format of the show is still in the works, it promises to bring some of Jay's most popular bits from The Tonight Show and will be taped in the same historic location in Burbank, CA.