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“Tonight Show” Update: Leno to pay staffers after all

Leno This just in: Jay Leno will now indeed pay “Tonight Show” staffers their salaries through at least next week.

According to a source close to the show, Leno plans to extend the pay (to around 100 staffers) on a week-by-week basis, with the hope that a strike will be settled soon.

Leno has been hit by heavy criticism over the past day or two, after “Tonight Show” staffers received their pink slips from NBC on Friday — with no word from Leno that he might be willing to pick up the slack and pay their salaries for the time being. In comparison, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” host Conan O’Brien had previously agreed to pay his staff’s paychecks out of his own pocket once NBC cut them off (which also happened on Friday) — causing quite a bit of grumbling in the “Tonight Show” camp.

Here’s what one staffer told Variety on Friday:

“We haven’t heard from him since the second or third day of the strike,” said a former Leno staffer. “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. Conan makes less and he said, ‘I’m going to pay for my people.’ ”

Insiders say Leno was caught off guard by the heavy dose of criticism. According to a source close to the show, the Christmas bonuses handed out by Leno on Friday (believed to be $100 times the number of years a recipient has been on staff) were never meant to be in lieu of a paycheck.

Instead, one source said Leno had been optimistic about the talks between the WGA and AMPTP, and didn’t believe he’d necessarily have to worry about his staff.

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

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 (a) the strike is settled, or (b) the “Tonight Show” resumes broadcasting, perhaps with guest hosts.

— Michael Schneider

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