Jay Leno leaves 'The Tonight Show'

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PASADENA, Calif. -- NBC is preparing to remake its late-night lineup as Jay Leno exits as host of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on Thursday and Jimmy Fallon begins as host of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" Feb. 17 (at midnight its first week following Olympics coverage, then moving back to its regular 11:35 p.m. time slot on WPXI). On Feb. 24, "Late Night with Seth Meyers" (12:35 a.m.) debuts.

Take note of that change in titles: "With Jay Leno" and "Starring Jimmy Fallon." The word "Starring" hasn't been used since Johnny Carson retired from "The Tonight Show" in 1992.

Mr. Fallon, 39, said he was looking through old logos from "The Tonight Show" when deciding on a new logo -- he chose a full moon over a crescent moon -- and he noticed the "Starring" that was used before the "With."

" 'With' is fine, but 'Starring' makes it more like, hey, we're in the business, it's glamorous, it's Hollywood," Mr. Fallon said. "It's an homage and a tip of the cap to the show's origins, and I thought it would be perfect."

" 'Starring' is a more exciting word than 'with,' " added incoming "Tonight Show" producer Josh Lieb.

"Late Night" house band The Roots will join Mr. Fallon on "The Tonight Show," which will originate from New York instead of its longtime Burbank, Calif., home. Mr. Fallon was born and raised in New York, and he wanted to bring "The Tonight Show" back there after a more than 40-year absence.

Mr. Fallon's first guest will be Will Smith and his first musical guest will be U2.

This new iteration of "The Tonight Show" will certainly mirror Mr. Fallon's personality and style as well as that of Mr. Fallon's "Late Night." (The head writer of "Late Night" is moving with Mr. Fallon to "The Tonight Show.")

"There's no defined thing as to what 'The Tonight Show' is and what it isn't," Mr. Lieb said. "The engine is there: It's Jimmy Fallon. There's a real reason he was picked to host this show, and there's a reason people enjoy the show now. It's what we do, and it's a lot of fun."

Mr. Fallon said having fun will be key to the show's success.

"I wish that Steve Allen and Johnny Carson were still around just to see what we're going to do with the show because when they invented this show, it was all about being fun and silly and goofy," Mr. Fallon said. "And Steve Allen was the first guy to sit in a plate with ice cream and pretend he's a banana split and get chocolate syrup all over him and roll around, because that's what it should be. It should be goofy and fun and make everyone laugh. Everyone works too hard, and we're the first thing after your local news. You watch us, and you get a good laugh, and you go to bed with a smile on your face. And that's our job."

As for the more harmonious transition from Mr. Leno to Mr. Fallon compared to the previous Leno-to-Conan O'Brien transition a few years ago, Mr. Fallon said when Mr. Leno got "The Tonight Show" back, he called to let Mr. Leno know he wasn't gunning for his job.

"When you eventually decide to step down, let's do it the right way," Mr. Fallon said to Mr. Leno. "It just felt different from then on. We talk to each other every few weeks. [Last year] he called me and said, 'I think this is gonna be the year, and I'd love for you to be the next guy.' "

Regarding Mr. Leno's future, Mr. Fallon said he's not worried that he might end up competing against Mr. Leno if Mr. Leno moves to another network.

"Maybe he could be a new detective on 'The Blacklist' or something," Mr. Fallon joked.

For his part, workaholic Mr. Leno seems more accepting of his departure this time around. (On Thursday his last guest will be Billy Crystal, who was his first guest in 1992.)

"People say, 'You could have gotten another couple of years,' but I don't know, then it becomes diminishing returns," Mr. Leno said in an interview with USA Today published last week. "This feels right this time."

With Mr. Fallon taking over "The Tonight Show," "Saturday Night Live" head writer and "Weekend Update" anchor Seth Meyers, who has a Pittsburgh connection, will take over as host of "Late Night With Seth Meyers," whose studio will be one floor above the new "Tonight Show" studio in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. (Mr. Meyers' last "Weekend Update" on "SNL" aired this past weekend.)

Mr. Meyers, 40, said he plans to bring some elements from "Weekend Update" to "Late Night."

"I'm drawn to the idea of making jokes about current events," he said, adding that he brought the head writer of "Weekend Update" to his new show. "I like interviewing people who are fictional and I'd like to continue that to some degree."

Mr. Meyers said he'll have a separate area to interview characters to distinguish it from his interviews with real people, who will include Amy Poehler as his first guest.

Mr. Meyers said he's not a music buff like Mr. Fallon, so he and producer Mike Shoemaker have surrounded themselves with people who are music experts.

As for interviews, he said he's been working on his listening and interview skills. He said the show will distinguish itself from its competition in its opening 15 minutes: "The biggest way to define yourself is in the two to three acts of comedy before the guests come out."

Mr. Meyers' father, Larry Meyers, grew up in East Liberty and later studied at Carnegie Mellon University. Seth Meyers grew up in New Hampshire but has fond memories of annual trips to Pittsburgh to visit family. And he's a die-hard Steelers fan.

"I'm sure my desk will have at least one piece of Steelers paraphernalia on it," Mr. Meyers said in January, before being reminded that the NFL has to approve the use of team logos on TV. "Well, I'll have to put in a call to [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell.

"My wife has been yelling at me because I've been spending a lot of time buying Steelers '70s paraphernalia on eBay," Mr. Meyers continued. "I feel like anytime the Steelers get eliminated from the playoffs, I go on a buying jag."

Portions of this story first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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