Despite a symphony of noise from chainsaws and beeping trucks, Jay Leno maintained his calm demeanor Wednesday morning as he opened the doors to the set of his highly-anticipated new primetime show, which debuts Sept. 14 on NBC.
The set — housed in a Burbank soundstage and still under heavy construction — prominently features Leno’s affinity for classic automobiles. A variety of photos shot at the host’s own car garage showcase parts from Leno’s cars, like engines or speedometers, and the images are displayed along the edges of the stage.
"When I get cancelled, I can go home and hang all of these pictures in my garage," said a trimmer Leno, who has lost 12 pounds — and who ran 2 miles before touring a group of reporters around the studio.
He also imitated how he’ll begin each evening on stage, walking through a pair of glass doors ("Ralph’s market"-esque) surrounded by neon pink and blue lights and landing on his mark off the stage, near a group of audience members who will be seated in chairs.
Not surprisingly, Leno is paying close attention to the seating in the new set, which can hold about 370 people. During his "Tonight Show" days, he saw a spike in ratings when he remade his set to be more intimate.
Above the stage, a large ticker crawl will display messages like "more to come" to audience members. To the left of the stage rests a performance area, that will be capable of expanding to host larger acts like Cirque de Soleil or solo musical guests.
The set also features lots of glass throughout. It’s an attempt to help break through the fourth wall, an NBC designer said. There is also wood paneling that appears to be Asian-inspired.
"We’re putting a P.F. Chang’s here," Leno quipped.
Earlier that morning, Leno seemed relaxed as he fielded questions about the format of the new show in a green room that had only been assembled with big lamps and plush pillows the day prior.
"I’m 59. I’m the world’s oldest quarterback. I’m just happy to play the game," he said. "If this is successful, that’s nice. If not, people go, ‘did you do something after ‘The Tonight Show?’ And you say, ‘no, no.’"
He also denied any trepidation about carrying NBC back to the ratings glory during its heyday of "Must See TV."
"No! They’re in fourth place. What happens now? Go back to ‘Lipstick Jungle?’ It’s not my fault. I was happy where I was."
Leno made a point of noting that as the host of "The Tonight Show," he both entered and exited the show with the number one talk show.
After departing the show in May and announcing he’d take up his new slot at 10 p.m., Leno has been the subject of ire from critics who claimed his weeknight programming was talking away valuable primetime slots from scripted drama.
It’s a criticism Leno says he doesn’t get, because his new program is employing 22 Writers Guild writers.
"If we didn’t do this, you’d have ‘Dateline’ in a 5-night strip. There are more scripted primetime dramas now than at in any point in history … all these great shows are on other networks," he said, pointing to dramas on cable networks like USA and TNT. "This is a situation where it wasn’t working at 10 o’clock. They weren’t bad shows, but they were very expensive. And they go after me. Well, if I didn’t do it, somebody else would."
The show will open with an 8-12 minute monologue, the length of which Leno said is dependent upon the news of the day. The monologue typically takes him five-to-six hours to complete, which he augments right up until show time.
Coming up with sheer volume of material the comedy program will require seems to be the one thing Leno is a bit nervous about.
"We’ve got a big empty shell in there. … It’s a lot of jokes every night," he said. "When you do ‘The Tonight Show,’ you tend to frontload the show. You cram your jokes in before 12 o’clock, take a six-minute break, the dopey actress comes out and then you’re out of it. [This] is a lot more work. … It’s like building a house."
The rest of the program will be filled with a variety of other segments, including a group of comedy correspondents like Brian Williams, D.L. Hughley, Liz Feldman and Mikey Day who will come in to introduce field reports.
The host said he sifted through tapes from a number of comedians, seeking out a diverse group of correspondents who weren’t "a bunch of white guys doing stand up … I want it to be like what America looks like when you walk outside."
The content of these reports will vary. Day, for instance, is doing a "TMZ thing," in which he takes a bunch of faux paparazzi out to stalk celebrities with hand-held cameras and chase them down the street.
Hughley is working on a piece in which he reaches out to the public in an effort to raise money for California’s ailing budget, and Feldman will go to an old person’s home to try to teach grandparents how to use Twitter.
"This is a way to use young comics in a new way," he said. "I hope we can make some stars from this and people get famous from it and get offered show and they say to me someday, ‘Jay, we’re replacing you with the guy you discovered.’ "
There will also be "10 at 10," when celebrities and world leaders are "asked ridiculous movie star questions."
As previously announced, another portion of the show will be called "The Green Car Challenge," during which celebrities will come and race cars on the full-size racetrack directly outside of the show’s soundstage two to three nights a week.
Crew members were just breaking ground on the track Wednesday. It will inhabit a current parking lot outside of the soundstage and will resemble "what the world will look like without pollution," Leno said.
"Grey’s Anatomy" star Patrick Dempsey, who is a professional race car driver, has said he wants to do it, as has Tom Cruise — who apparently wanted to be able to take a test run before hopping on the track.
They’ll be driving 2 laps (2200 feet in total) at 40 to 50 miles per hour in European rally cars that Ford Focus has transformed into environmentally-friendly electric race cars.
And if they crash and burn?
"Great! It’ll be a lead in for the 11 o’clock news," Leno joked.
Most shows will only feature one guest per evening, and there may be a desk or two chairs used during this portion of the show, Leno said.
"The idea is not to have cattle prods to make them get out of the chair and do something," he said.
Musical guests will also appear one to two times a week, and Leno says he hopes to do something different by combining artists audiences wouldn’t typically see together — like Rihanna, Jay-Z and Kayne West, who are lined up for the first show.
And then he’ll end each show with one of his signature comedy bits, like "Jaywalking" or "Headlines," which calm the nerves of the local affiliates, he said.
"We’re just trying to give you a laugh before you go to bed, and that’s really all it is," he said.