Here’s how impossible it is for Jay Leno to get a break: After enduring 40 days and 40 late nights of relentless, nose-pressed-against-the-TV-screen scrutiny from reporters, rivals, and millions of viewers, the new host of NBC’s Tonight Show woke up on July 21 and discovered that, finally, the searchlight was beaming down on someone else. Now the bad news: That someone else was Arsenio Hall.
Even as Jay Leno busied himself with preparations for his 42nd Tonight Show of the post-Carson era, L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley was issuing a proclamation declaring July 21 Arsenio Hall Day. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hall, after attending a ceremony honoring him for paying to convert a crackhouse into a youth center, spent much of the rest of his day hurling electronic grenades at Leno. They were the latest salvos in an attack that began when Hall threatened to ”kick Jay’s ass” last April in Entertainment Weekly and escalated when he observed, of The Dennis Miller Show’s recent cancellation, ”He should be staying and punk-ass Leno should be going.”
The night before the ceremony, Hall taped an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America to explain that his problem with Leno is ”personal” — which for Hall means it’s strictly between the two of them and about 10 million late-night viewers — then went into more detail. ”Jay and I used to be friends,” said Hall. ”Dennis and Jay used to be friends. Johnny handed over a legacy, and they never mentioned each other’s names (on Carson’s finale and Leno’s debut). Something’s wrong with someone who is always surprised about people being upset with him.”
But that day, Leno is surprised. In his underground dressing room at NBC’s Burbank studios, he shakes his head and makes a familiar palms-up, beats-me gesture. ”I understand his headline grabbing, but I don’t understand the reason for (the nastiness of) it,” he says, pushing back the cuffs of his denim shirt. ”The ‘punk-ass’ thing, how I should have been canceled? All ! right, but why? I mean, what is this attitude? He makes $12 million a year! Are his monologues worth $9 million a year more than mine? What you have here appears to be two millionaires fighting it out. It’s fine if it gets more people watching the shows, but why throw rocks at each other?”
Leno insists he won’t get dragged into a war of words with Hall: ”I haven’t said anything nasty about him, nor will I. I don’t dislike him. I’ve called him, although I realize no one’s going to call me back.” But his patience may be wearing thin. ”If he did it in a funny way, it would be fine,” says Leno, a little testily. ”But every time he does a joke like (the punk-ass line), I can put a real joke on the air.”