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My Chat with Leno

by Annie Wood 10 days ago in career

Remembering when I was a guest on The Tonight Show

Annie Wood on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

Success.

It feels so far, far away. Like maybe it all happened in a dream or a movie. But not a movie that I wrote and starred in. Just one I happen to have watched, on a loop, for several years. God, I miss that movie.

I used to have my own TV show. A nationally syndicated dating game show called BZZZ! (it just enjoyed a re-airing in Feb 2020 on BuzzrTV!)

Having my own TV show was a lifelong dream come true. I told E! Entertainment News in a segment, “All I ever wanted was a dog and my own TV show. Now I have both!” I was flying high. I hired my best friend at the time to be my personal assistant, kept good friends close by, and traveled the country promoting the show. I was only in my 20s, and I was already living the dream. My specific dream that I wholeheartedly believed I created with my own sheer will. I bought a penthouse condo, a car, and for some lame reason — antiques, none of which I still own.

Artwork by the author

Anyhow, back to success. It’s now twenty-plus years later, and I often wonder if any of it actually happened. Maybe I dreamt of the whole damn thing.

In 1995 I walked into producer Stu Billet’s office one afternoon wearing my hat on backward and my fav Rock Star t-shirt. I was requested for this meeting because I had just finished working (AKA: got canned) on MTV’s dating show, Singled Out. I was a contest coordinator (my first full-time job), and because of the work I did on that show, I massed a huge book of names full of dating show contestants. Stu had a dating show he was developing and needed contestants. Supply and demand right there.

But something else happened. Stu did something shocking and unpredictable. This older, powerful, successful producer went ahead and… asked me for my opinion.

So I gave it.

I watched a demo of a show he was working on, and I told him why I thought it didn’t work. He didn’t argue. He just listened. He also hired me.

I told him that I had a lead role in a film. (Cellblock Sisters, Banished Behind Bars, a B-women-in-prison movie. Netflix it. Or don’t. Maybe don’t unless you enjoy B women-in-prison movies. Then, sure, go ahead. I mean, I’m not the boss of you. Oh, also, boobs! Mature audiences only. Also, this parenthetical is way too long.)

Stu gave me time off to do the above-mentioned movie and said that after I wrapped, I could come back and help him develop the game show.

My job was to find people, mostly my actor pals, to come to the offices of Edwards Billet productions on Hollywood Blvd so we could tape mock run-throughs of the show. Comedians, all-male, would act as the host, and we’d study the improvised run-through to see what was working and what wasn’t.

On one particular day, I felt like I figured out what wasn’t working. The comedians were doing parts of their act, like an MC, and the contestants were an after-thought. I thought the contestants should be the main event. With this realization, I barged into Stu’s office and told him that I knew what was missing in the show. I told him that the host should ask more questions and engage the contestants. They shouldn’t tell jokes; they need to keep things moving and listen and have a back and forth with the contestants.

He listened and nodded. I wasn’t sure he was picking up what I was putting down, so I exclaimed,

I know what you need! You need me!

I should host the show!

He looked up from behind his large desk and smiled, “You’ll get your chance, kid!” Okay, I’m not sure he said “kid,” but it sounds very showbizzy and exactly like something a producer would say to his young protege, so that’s how I like to hear it in my head.

A week later, one of the comics was a no show (BTW, thank you!) This was it — my chance. I hosted the run-through in the office for the first time with the contestants that I had found. They all knew me; I knew them. It was like a fast-paced party, and they happily answered all the questions that I threw at them. The whole thing was taped, and Stu’s son added graphics to the edit (this was the 90s and way before everyone was doing that sort of thing). Stu and I took that tape around town and pitched our show. He was the grounded grown-up with experience, and I was the cool Gen Xer with enthusiasm.

We had our routine down. We killed it. We sold the show.

It was not carved in stone that I would continue to host. At that time in TV dating game show history, there had only been two prior solo female dating game show hosts.

I was told that people didn’t like taking orders from women. This idea naturally felt absurd to me, so I didn’t give it much thought other than thinking in my head, “Whatever.” (again, the 90s). At the very same time in my voice over career, I was told that women were never cast as announcers.

They told me, “Announcers needed to have more authority.”

(You know, like men.)

Whatever.

I just continued to show up and do my thing.

Starting that year, most of the voice-over jobs that I happened to book turned out to be those announcer roles that women “can’t do.”

As far as hosting, maybe none of the men they searched for were available. Or maybe Stu believed in me enough to push for me. At the time, I believed that he believed. However, it happened — I was the official host of a dating game show.

Blazing trails, baby! FIST BUMP.

Now, about Jay...

Artwork by the author

BZZZ! was on for about a year when I appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. This was a serious BFD for me.

When I was around six years old, I started a habit of lulling myself to sleep at night, imagining myself being interviewed on The Tonight Show. I would have a full out conversation with Johnny Carson in my mind, and he would find me utterly delightful. I kept “appearing” on his show throughout my entire childhood.

And NOW, I was about to experience the joy of watching my childhood dreams become a reality right before my very eyes.

I had a great experience on the show, but after it aired and I heard the response from others, I wasn’t so sure. I mean, did I have a good time?

Because apparently, something was up with Jay. More than one person said, “What was going on with Jay? Did you say something to upset him?” Maybe he was not a big fan of mine for some reason, other than me not being someone whom he knew in the slightest bit. So what? I was fun and nice enough, and so why the ‘tude? But was there a ‘tude? Could it be that Jay just didn’t like me? Can people do that? Not like another person on national TV and be, like, all obvious about it?

Apparently, yes, yes they can.

For decades this why doesn’t Jay like me question has been hovering about in my mind. I ran into him at a party once, and when he was introduced to me by the host, he said, grumpier than needed, “Yes, we’ve met.” I would brainstorm with friends; Maybe you remind him of an ex. Maybe he wanted someone else on, and you took the spot, and for some reason, he had to have you on against his will. Maybe he didn’t like that you mentioned his mother.

One day, it just hit me. My big faux pas: I disagreed with him.

You see, that night, Jay came back into the dressing room and said that he knew what he wanted to talk about with me on the show. He has a theory about cute blondes always falling for the bad boy tattooed musicians, and at the time, I was newly casually dating John Corabi of Motley Crue. I didn’t follow the band, and I was not a groupie or anything, so I didn’t make a habit of dating tattooed rock stars, not that there’s anything wrong with it; it just wasn’t like a “thing” for me. John was sweet and cool, and I liked him, that’s all. (He’s still a pal. Hi Corabi!)

So when Jay mentioned that he wanted to spend our time talking about young Hollywood blondes always dating rock stars, I immediately thought that it would be such a drag to spend the 15 minutes or whatever time I had, maybe ever in my entire life, on the freakin’ Tonight Show, talking about some guy instead of talking about things pertaining to, you know, me.

So, I said, “I don’t have a habit of dating rock stars. I like all sorts of fellas. So, let’s not talk about that.” And then I followed it with other suggestions. I remember him asking again, and I changed the subject again.

We ended up talking about vegetarianism, getting mail from prisoners, and my feet. I was cool with that. Was he? I don’t know. And after all of these years, I’ve decided that whatever I did, or didn’t do, that displeased Jay Leno — who gives a crapola?

People are going to want to tell you things in life, all kinds of things. Like what you can or can’t do. Like what you should and shouldn’t say. I’ve learned that through it all, as long as I remained true to myself and pushed on ahead, following my guts and my passions, I was going to be alright. And if Jay didn’t like it, what difference does it make?

Because I was on THE FREAKIN’ TONIGHT SHOW, and six years old me is still as giddy as fuck about it.

I’d rather please her anyway.

(This story first appeared in Be Yourself on Medium)

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Annie Wood
Annie Wood
Read next: The State
Annie Wood

I'm an Israeli-American, Hollywood, CA native

who writes fiction, plays, essays & poetry. A common theme of mine is embracing your youness by not following the fold.

Also, I'm a TV/film actor & mixed media artist.

https://ko-fi.com/anniewood

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