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Leno to pay ‘Tonight’ staff after all

Host opens wallet to workers

Stung by criticism from several of his own staffers, “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno has promised to pay employee salaries through at least this week.

According to a source close to Leno, the host will pay around 100 “Tonight Show” staffers on a week-by-week basis — taking the optimistic approach that a strike will be settled soon.

Most of the workers were officially pinkslipped by NBC on Friday; the staff at “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” was also let go the same day.

“NBC regretfully informed the people who work on ‘The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’ and ‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’ that their services are not needed at this time due to our inability to continue production of the shows,” the Peacock said in statement.

Insiders say Leno was caught off-guard Friday by the tone of several upset staffers, who expressed dismay (via blind quotes in several online and print publications) that they weren’t being taken care of by the host.

In comparison, O’Brien had already assured his “Late Night” team before Friday that they would continue to be paid — out of his own pocket. The disparity in behavior between the two hosts caused some grumbling among “Tonight Show” staffers.

While some higher-level executives received severance packages, other staffers received only Leno’s traditional bonus of $100 times the number of years the staffer has been on the show.

Writers were not included in the bonuses, but one writer emphasized that “he’s not being Scrooge. He just wanted to get the staff taken care of first. I can’t emphasize enough how generous Jay is.”

Others were less forgiving.

“We haven’t heard from him since the second or third day of the strike,” said one Leno staffer who was let go Friday. “He called on speakerphone while we were in our daily meeting and said, ‘Don’t look for other jobs, no one’s going to lose their house, we’ll get though this.’ Two weeks ago, we got the heads up that we had two more weeks (of pay) and that’s it. Everyone wondered, ‘Is Jay going to come through?’ And nothing happened.”

Still on the payroll are the exec producers and a skeleton crew to answer phones. Leno was not on hand for the layoffs. Instead, Leno’s assistant notified the staff Thursday that they would get their Christmas bonus early. Leno’s bonuses usually go out the week before Christmas.

“People are devastated today because we thought that he meant something more than an early Christmas bonus,” another said Friday. “A lot of people didn’t look for other work based on Jay’s assurances.”

But according to a source close to the show, the Christmas bonuses handed out by Leno on Friday were never meant to be in lieu of a paycheck.

Instead, one source said Leno hadn’t yet firmed up plans to pay “Tonight Show” staffers himself because, up through Thursday, he’d been optimistic about the talks between the WGA and AMPTP and believed there might still be a way that NBC would keep employees on the payroll. Talk of jumpstarting “Tonight Show” sans Leno would also have kept the staffers on the NBC roster.

“He never said he wouldn’t pay the staff,” a source said. “He is paying them next week.”

Fueling Friday’s angst: the letter from NBC’s human resource department, which read, “If your services are needed, we’ll contact you.”

“Do we have a job when the strike ends? That’s what everyone keeps asking,” one former staffer said. “They’ve guaranteed no one a job. They just keep saying, ‘The letter explains it.’ ”

Even with the NBC pinkslips, and no guarantee (until now) that they would be paid by Leno, the show’s bookers were still planning on visiting the “Tonight Show” offices on Wednesday — to make sure the show still has guests on tap in the event that the strike is settled, or “The Tonight Show” resumes broadcasting, perhaps with guest hosts.

On that front, rumbling continues that various entities or individuals are being mulled to serve as guest hosts on the talker, which could potentially return before the end of the year — but so far, nothing has been firmed up.

(Dana Harris contributed to this report.)

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