Jay Leno’s Mom Called Out Her Son and Changed Tonight Show History

Jay Leno’s mom jokingly took her son down a peg when he took over The Tonight Show—and slightly altered the history of the long-running franchise in the process.

In a recent interview on Dystopia Tonight with John Poveromo, Leno revealed that when he replaced Johnny Carson, he initially planned to call the program The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno. Ultimately, his mom convinced him otherwise.

The use of the word “starring” in the title would have matched the format of the franchise’s previous iterations: Tonight Starring Steve Allen, Tonight Starring Jack Paar, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

The Tonight Show, when I started, was The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno,” the host recalled before launching into a Scottish-accented impression of his mother, Catherine.

“Oh, ‘Starring Jay Leno.’ Listen to you, Mr. Big Shot. You’re getting too big for your britches,” Leno recalled his mother saying.

“Two weeks later, I changed it to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” he continued. “That’s why it changed. Because of my mother.”

However, the switch also came amidst some disagreements within the network over whether Leno’s approach should be completely fresh or closely tied to what Carson had created, as LateNighter’s Bill Carter detailed in his book The Late Shift. “Jay had steered clear of ‘Starring Jay Leno’ out of concern that he would look too presumptuous claiming a star title on his first day on the job,” Carter wrote.  

Conan O’Brien continued the humbler title format when he debuted The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien in 2009. 

Notably, Jimmy Fallon opted to bring back the original title convention when he took over the show after Leno’s second tenure, dubbing his version The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. That change coincided with a larger effort to highlight the nostalgia of the NBC franchise.

Fallon also moved the show back to New York City, where it had originated, and works out of the very same studio where Carson first hosted the program.

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