James Douglas Muir Leno was born in April 1950 in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Andover, Massachusetts. His Italian-American father, Angelo, worked in the insurance industry. His mother, Catherine, was of Scottish ancestry.
A poor student who suffered mild dyslexia, Leno earned a degree in speech therapy from Boston’s Emerson College in 1973. He went on to become a stand-up comic working the club circuit. In 1977 he made his first appearance on NBC’s The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. After many return appearances there and on its associated show, Late Night with David Letterman, Leno became the Tonight Show's exclusive guest host in September 1987. In 1992 NBC installed Leno as the permanent host to replace the retiring Carson.
Leno's wife since 1980, Mavis Leno, serves as Chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation and is an activist for women's rights in Afghanistan. She has donated money to EMILY’s List and to the political campaigns of Democrat senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein. In 2001 Mavis and Jay Leno together contributed $100,000 to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s campaign to outlaw gender apartheid in Afghanistan. “When my wife got involved in helping the women in Afghanistan, I took a lot of flack for that for my obvious left-wing leanings,” says Leno. “I’m not conservative,” he elaborates. “I’ve never voted that way in my life.”
In 2004 Leno told an L.A. Weekly reporter that he used to read the socialist magazine Mother Jones. On his Tonight Show joke-writing team, he revealed, were several former Democratic candidate speechwriters but “no Republicans.” “I used to write jokes for Bill and Hillary,” Leno added. “In fact, in Hillary's book, she thanks me for writing jokes. And people went, ‘You’ve lost your objectivity.’”
Discussing the degree to which his political views seep into his comedy, Leno says, “Look, you don't change anybody's mind with comedy. You just reinforce what they already believe…. I'm just here to tell the joke. I really don't have any personal ax to grind. And I try to keep a sense of fair play. This is not a bully pulpit.”
According to Leno, comedians who introduce large doses of politics into their humor run the risk of compromising their effectiveness as entertainers. “All I ask of a political comedian, [is] make it funny,” Leno told the Boston Globe in July 2004 about the new breed of partisan “Politicomics” such as Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken. “You start out as a comedian, then you become a political humorist. Then you become a political satirist. Then you become a commentator. Then you're out of show business.”
Leno recalls that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he refrained from telling jokes about President George W. Bush: “For the first few months of the war, the jokes all tended to be rah-rah. Anything other than Bush.” Leno recalls precisely when he shifted course and began to poke fun at the President: “I really think it really started with Bush saying ‘Mission Accomplished’ and landing on the aircraft carrier. That was probably the point where it’s obvious to the audience this is turning into a political tool.”
Asked in a 2004 interview what he found humorous about President Bush, Leno said, “Oh, I think the mispronouncing of the words. I don’t know if you’ve seen this thing we do, ‘Bush’s Spanish is better than his English’? We show Bush babbling away in perfect Spanish. And then you cut to show his English is awkward.”
Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, Leno, who supported Democrat John Kerry, said that the Bush-Kerry race was particularly important because there were major, vital differences between the two candidates. “When it comes to [the appointment of] Supreme Court judges, yeah, I really worry [that Bush might win].”
When a reporter asked Leno if he thought it was “weird that talk radio is all right [i.e., politically conservative] all the time,” the comedian replied: “No, it’s not weird. Because liberal people don’t need to hear their view expressed over and over again. I think some people on the right need to hear this constant reinforcement, whereas I don’t find that necessary.”
Leno has been praised by organized labor for his public refusal, in 2005, to perform at the same convention in Las Vegas where workshops were to be conducted by a law firm that helps companies to resist being unionized. Faced with Leno’s ultimatum, the convention cancelled these workshops.
On May 29, 2009, Leno, in fulfillment of a contractual agreement he had made with NBC five years earlier, left The Tonight Show and was replaced as host by Conan O’Brien, who made his debut three days later. On September 14, 2009, Leno began hosting a new NBC program titled The Jay Leno Show, which aired weeknights at 10:00 p.m.
Due to the show's falling ratings, however, NBC Universal Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Zucker decided in early January 2010 to pull Leno's program off the air by February 12. Zucker tentatively proposed moving Leno back to the 11:35 p.m. time slot which he had filled during his years as The Tonight Show host, and pushing the new Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien a half-hour later, to 12:05 a.m. But on January 12, 2010, O'Brien announced that he would no longer serve as host of the program if his time slot was going to be changed. Nine days later, it was announced that O'Brien had reached a deal with NBC that would see him leave The Tonight Show, and that Leno would return as host on March 1, 2010.