It just occurred to me that the end of the Jay Leno “Tonight Show” a week or two ago might have been the end of an era — I wasn’t sure if it was the last production in the Burbank Studios, formerly owned by NBC. NBC sold the studio in 2008 and gradually moved most of its production to Universal Studios (which is now, of course, part of the same company as NBC). During Conan O’Brien’s short tenure as host of “The Tonight Show,” he broadcast from a studio on the Universal lot. I read just now that Conan’s old studio is now the home of “Chelsea Lately.”
Jay Leno, however, was comfortable in the Burbank facility and stayed there throughout both of his runs at “The Tonight Show” and the short-lived “Jay Leno Show.”
It turns out Jay wasn’t the last NBC star to leave the ship; Wikipedia says that “Access Hollywood” and “Days of Our Lives” are still being shot at the Burbank facility.
I got to tour the studios in the year 2000 when visiting my brother and sister-in-law in California. (I may have told this story before.) Our tour guide told us the story about Jay Leno and the studios.
When Jay first took over “The Tonight Show” in the early 1990s, he went into the same large stage where Johnny Carson had been presiding since moving the show from New York to California. Johnny, who got his start in radio, was used to not being able to see his audience, and he was far enough away from the bleachers, with bright TV lights shining in his eyes, that he didn’t see them when doing his monologue. Jay, who got his start in comedy clubs with the audience at his feet, was never comfortable with that arrangement. During a week of “Tonight Shows” on the road in New York, he found himself in a much smaller studio and noticed a change in his energy level. Upon returning to California, he asked to move onto one of the smaller stages in the Burbank complex, and a special platform was built so that during his monologue, he would be much, much closer to the audience than he had been. He could even shake hands with them as he took his mark. Jay became more relaxed in his new surroundings and eventually started beating David Letterman in the ratings.
We did not get to see the “Tonight Show” studio that day – they were doing sound check or something at the time of our tour. But at the time, they took you into the parking lot to see Jay’s parking space, and which of his many vehicles he’d driven to work that day. We went out, and gawked, and as we turned around to go back inside there was a man standing on the loading dock from which we’d emerged, smoking a cigarette.
It was – no kidding – Maury Povich, who was taping the first few episodes of his revival of “Twenty-One” that day. (Someone in the gift shop had tried to recruit us for the audience, but we already had tickets for a sitcom over on the Warner Brothers lot that evening.) Maury saw the tour group looking at him, tossed his cigarette and ducked back into the building.
There were murals outside some of the stages of famous shows that had been shot on those stages, and the one of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” made me think of Gary Owens, hand cupped to his ear, announcing that the program originated from “beautiful downtown Burbank.” (This was sarcasm; Burbank is neither particularly beautiful nor does it have a noticeable downtown.)
Steve Allen did his version of “The Tonight Show” from Rockefeller Center in New York, where Jimmy Fallon has just taken over. But this is from some other prime time show or special that Steverino shot in Burbank, and I like the way it makes use of the corridors, which actually still looked a lot like this in 2000:
Anyway, I don’t know if the current owners of the Burbank Studios give tours, but if they do, and if you’re in Southern California, you need to stop by. It’s a pop culture historic site if ever there was one.