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‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ opened my mind

by Jessica Cabot

My first dream of being in the entertainment industry was based on Conan O’Brien. Specifically, I wanted to work for him or, better yet, turn into him somehow. He was awkward, self-deprecating, funny, and got to hang out with celebs. I decided the way to go was to become an NBC Page, because that seemed like the door in.

Years later, I somehow accomplished that, but the reality felt disappointing compared to the dream I had conjured back in high school. It was 2011, Leno had reclaimed his throne as host of The Tonight Show and I couldn’t have been more disgruntled to be seating his audience instead of my hero’s. I felt like for having a dream come true I had gotten there too late, or maybe it was just my sort of “luck” to get what I had always wanted, for the wrong guy.

The NBC Page Program is comprised of three-month “assignments” where pages have an opportunity to basically intern for different departments within the company. I was assigned to work backstage at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, which is about the closest anyone can come to being a real life Kenneth from 30 Rock. I begrudgingly accepted, feeling I had “nothing better to do.” I quickly learned a lesson in how blinding youthful self-righteousness can be.

Working for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was, hands down, the best three months of my life. It’s difficult to convey in words just how magical my experience was.

I met some of the kindest and most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life. The Tonight Show staff was truly a family, they all seemed to love what they did for a living and took great pride in their work. I learned so much from everyone, particularly a certain attitude I had clearly been lacking before. I got the sense that no one at The Tonight Show took their good fortune for granted. Everyone worked hard, or maybe more appropriately, they played hard.

I laughed the most at The Tonight Show. Rickey Minor taught me a secret handshake. I danced a lot with the special effects artist whose office was in front of my chair in the middle of the hallway. The security guard was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met and he’d intentionally bump my pen when I was writing something. One of the writers went out of his way to help me and give me career advice. The hair department made my hair look nice. The stage manager, my main boss, would yell “GIRL!” at me a lot, since that was the nickname they had given me, and her high expectations made my job thrilling because I enjoyed the challenge of trying to impress her. 

That’s not even everyone.

I’d probably need an entire book to write about all the fun, weird, interesting experiences and people I encountered there. I think when we’re dreaming it’s easy to get lost in minutiae of what we think we need to be happy. I thought I needed Conan, but now that I look back, I think maybe I was missing the point. The Tonight Show staff had a certain integrity and kindness that I haven’t found elsewhere. People say that on TV shows those in charge set the tone for the rest of the staff, and I remember fans would come back stage and basically attack Jay Leno with hugs and he’d just hug them right back, even though I think most celebrities aren’t necessarily in the wrong to deflect that kind of attention. From what I could tell he was a kind man, and sometimes it seems that kindness has become extremely undervalued, especially when maybe it is the most important thing anyone can be.

Backstage at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

Jessica Cabot and friends backstage at “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”
(Photo courtesy of Jessica Cabot)

After my three months were up I wanted nothing more than to stay, and even still I wish they could stay. I still enjoy Conan’s show, but I think in becoming so single-mindedly focused on what I would accept as happiness in my book, I initially missed out on so much more. I appreciate The Tonight Show now because it opened my mind up to seeing the world from a different perspective. I learned to value a certain flavor of comedy I hadn’t taken the time to appreciate before.

Good work is ultimately subjective, and I discovered that what matters most is having integrity and commitment to the people you’re reaching out to. The middle of the country is a valid part of America too, as much as my liberal coastal leanings would sometimes like to believe otherwise. Ironically it seems that sometimes the thing we were resisting is also the place we’ll learn and grow the most.

Special thanks to Jay and all of my friends at The Tonight Show for the gift of uncontrollable laughter, the wonderful lessons I learned and the great memories we made.

Jessica Cabot

About Jessica Cabot

Jessica Cabot is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles who has worked for such notable TV programs as Web Therapy, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Weeds, and Wilfred. She hopes to one day change and inspire the world with her comedy, or at least be roasted on Comedy Central. Jessica even co-hosts a monthly comedy show at Bar Lubitsch as an intergalactic super model, Lady Sodium. Other than that she shares a birthday with Gary Busey. Follow her on Twitter @jessicacabot

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