The former late-night bandleader talks music, comedy, and Jay Leno.
Great guests, laughs, music… the must-haves for a late-night talk show sound a lot like those for a lively party.
For years, Kevin Eubanks, music director of The Tonight Show band, supplied the tunes for NBC's late-night soirée. His likeable nature and rapport with host Jay Leno, along with his gift for the guitar, made him right for a job that has to look easy even when chaos reigns backstage.
Eubanks's late-night tenure included the tumult that began in summer 2009, when Conan O'Brien succeeded Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show and Leno moved to 10 p.m., where he led a poorly received hour called The Jay Leno Show. In March 2010 — after O'Brien refused NBC's offer to move to 12:05 a.m. — Leno returned to his hosting seat at The Tonight Show.
Eubanks was by Leno's side throughout the upheaval, but he left The Tonight Show in 2010, shortly after Leno's homecoming. The programming shuffle — coupled with the rise of online viewing — marked a sea change in late-night talk shows. "There was a shift in late night altogether," Eubanks says. "It was not as innocent a feeling."
The product of a musical family from Philadelphia, Eubanks released his first album as a bandleader when he was 25. He spent 18 years on television with Jay Leno, from 1992 to 2010, becoming a household name and grabbing occasional acting gigs on shows such as Days of Our Lives and appearing on the likes of Muppets Tonight and Hollywood Squares.
These days, in addition to touring, Eubanks supports music education and hosts master classes at universities around the world.
Eubanks was interviewed in September 2011 by Amy Harrington for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire discussion can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: Do you remember the first time you picked up an instrument?
A: I was probably playing piano when I was six. Since my mother was a music teacher, there were a lot of instruments around the house all the time. I would fiddle with everything that was around. I think that's why the piano comes even more natural to me than guitar. I was less fearful of it because it was something we saw Mom do all the time.
Q: Was there ever any doubt that you were going to be a musician?
A: No, not really. That was something that I didn't have to decide. It was like, "Well, I'm already doing it." I started playing violin at seven. Every day was accompanied by music. Either my mom was teaching or I had to practice something.
Q: Did you watch The Tonight Show growing up?
A: Oh, yeah, a lot. And when I got older I would turn on The Tonight Show quite often. There was something comforting about it. There was just a vibe about it.
Q: Where did you go to college?
A: Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Q: And that's where you met Branford Marsalis?
A: Yeah. Branford knocked on my door and said, "You're that guitar player, right?" I said, "Yeah, I play guitar." He said, "Man, I got to talk to somebody about my girl." That's the first time I ever met him. He walked in and sat down and gave me this whole long thing about him and his girlfriend.
Q: Why did he come to you?
A: I don't know. It turned out we had a lot of friends in common. I'd been playing with a lot of people at school and we just hadn't met yet. From then on we were friends.
Q: How did you get the job in Branford's band on The Tonight Show?
A: I was in Europe with a great group, with Dave Holland and Marvin "Smitty" Smith, who became the drummer in The Tonight Show band. Branford was there with his band, and we were criss-crossing each other.
He's saying this Tonight Show thing was going to happen and said, "I need a guitar player for the band. You want to do it?" I said, "Yeah, but we're on tour now. Can you call me when I'm home and we can talk about what that really means?" And he's like, "It's not going to happen for a while, man. I just got to put somebody down for it." I said, "Yeah, put me down for it."
Eight months later, I haven't heard from Branford. I was living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and I get a call from Branford and he says, "Yo, bro, we got to be in L.A. in two weeks. We start test shows. You're still doing it, right?" I said, "All right. I'm going to come out there. We'll figure this out." I closed up my house and moved to L.A. in two weeks.
Q: Was there a repertoire of songs that you needed to know?
A: I thought there should be. But I wasn't the bandleader, so that wasn't for me to decide. That was for Branford and the executive producer to decide.
Q: Playing music on the show, was there a certain amount of improvising that would happen?
A: Yeah. Maybe too much.
Q: What do you mean?
A: We were coming from an atmosphere where that's what people come to see you do. They come to see you solo — to be the guy on sax or the guy on guitar. That's one kind of show. This is a different show. This is The Tonight Show featuring Jay Leno, right? Not everybody's there to see you play your instrument.
I think there was a lot of misunderstanding about what the band was supposed to do and what they were told they could do. It reached a boiling point, and things had to change one way or another. That's when I got called in.
Q: Who called you in?
A: Branford called and said, "Brother, I'm leaving, so they're going to be asking you if you want to [lead the band]." I was like, "Well, how do you feel about that?" He said, "It don't matter how I feel. I'm leaving. They need somebody for the show. I told them you're probably the only cat in the band that could do this."
Jay and I had a brief discussion. Really brief, like, "Hey, you feel like doing that? We'll have fun. It'll be good." I said, "All right, I'll talk to you later." Boom. And that was it. Next thing I knew, everything changed.
I remember the very first day, I could hardly sleep the night before. My face broke out in so many bumps that when I went into makeup, people were trying not to laugh. They were patting me down and patting me down. I was sweating, and bumps were all over the place. They said, "Just go on stage." I was terrified.
Q: How did you make the show different?
A: I wanted to play a different style of music that I thought suited the show. But the key thing was, Jay and I got along in the most natural way. I think that superseded the music and everything else that had to do with me contributing to the show. I knew Jay and we kind of hung out, so when he told a funny joke, it was easy to laugh.
The relationship between Jay and me was greatly different than his relationship with Branford. That became the backdrop to everything. Then there's, "How do you jump in the monologue and get out of the monologue? How can you be effective while he's telling jokes?" I had no clue how to do that.
Then I realized the music just had to be something that supported a good time. People are visiting from all over, and they want to enjoy themselves. We want to give them energy when we go into commercial. And when we come back, they have energy from the music so they can laugh at the next guest who tells some funny story.
We're not trying to turn it into the band's show. Even during a commercial, we're still supporting The Tonight Show.
Q: What was the atmosphere like on set when you became the bandleader?
A: We'd gotten a new executive producer, Debbie Vickers, not long before, and that was the start of a really great friendship. In general, things were relaxed.
I felt that I had been in a privileged position to learn the [show by having played in the band]. Jay was used to seeing me on stage, so his turning to me wasn't something that we were doing for the first time. All of that was already in place.
I started to learn more about comedy and trust on camera. And I started meeting the guests and talking to them about it. I talked to Ed McMahon, Arsenio Hall, Bill Cosby, Rodney Dangerfield and Regis Philbin. People were very helpful. Ed gave me his number and said, "Give me a call."
I remember when Ed walked into my dressing room. I said, "I can leave, Ed. It's your place. You need to use the phone? I'll step out." He was dying laughing. But I started feeling a little bit more comfortable.
Q: That included getting more comfortable with the comedy….
A: Yeah. It didn't happen overnight. It took a while for me to feel a little more sure of myself. They wanted me to play Beyondo when green screen first came out — Jay had the floating head and I would ask him questions. I felt like I had seen that — [Johnny Carson's] Carnac [skits with] Ed McMahon — this is just a different version.
Since Jay and I were cool with each other, I could have fun with him. We trusted each other comedically. He would wear this white wig and goatee, and there would be a floating head. And every now and then I'd go over to him and drag the wig down a little bit. That little gesture is big in that skit. People would laugh.
Then Jay would find a way to get back at me. I knew it was coming. The way of doing a bit better was to bring out the relationship between Jay and me. It wasn't asking the questions in a better way. It was, "How do we find the same rhythm that we find in the monologue? How do we still see Jay and Kev through this?"
Q: In 2009 the network decided to move Jay to 10 p.m. and to give The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien. What did you think about that at the time?
A: I thought it was just a matter of doing your duty. Jay's Tonight Show was over. Conan's was starting, and they wanted to try a 10 p.m. show. Nobody was asking my opinion. To me it was, "You have to write new music for the theme and some new bits. We're trying to differentiate between the 11:30 Tonight Show and the 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show."
I had minor things like that to do, but basically my day didn't change. It was the same call time. I just concentrated on doing the gig.
Everybody was freaked out. It's tough to go into a show when you're written up as a failure before you start. But it started to dawn on us that this was completely out of our control. The best thing we could do was to be as enthusiastic as ever and do a good job with what was in front of us.
For me, it was a chance to write some new music, which was cool. I just felt bad for Jay. I was trying to be a little more sensitive to what he had to deal with. It was a lot.
Q: Did the audience for The Jay Leno Show differ from that of The Tonight Show?
A: I don't think the audience was so different — the building that we filmed in made the audience different. Where we were filming before, the audience felt a little closer to everything. In the new studio, the audience felt further away. You had to reach further to grab them and to hold them.
And the sound was different. We want the audience to feel the music. They were not present where the sound was being dispersed. They felt distant. They were a little bit further back from Jay.
I was much further back from the audience, and maybe on TV it doesn't look like much, but when you're close, you can get this part of the audience giggling over something that Jay has no idea about. Now you've got some more energy into the show. You're playing with the audience and we're all in it together.
When audience is further back, you don't see the expressions as well. They take a little longer to react. That just pulls energy from the show.
Q: What was your reaction to going back to The Tonight Show?
A: I wasn't that surprised, really, as I thought it shouldn't have moved in the first place. I thought it was a shame to uproot so many families and put people through so much stress. There were people moving from New York. There were people that were like, "Do I have a job?"
Q: Did you have any hesitation about returning?
A: I was pretty much on board, but this was getting to be 18 years with the show now. Maybe going through all of this stuff and watching people dealing with their families made me a little bit more aware of, "How are you dealing with people in your life?" I said, "I need to have a few years with certain people in my life."
So I went home. I heard my niece say to a friend: "That's the guy on TV," instead of, "That's Uncle Kev." I don't know how all that sat with me. But at the same time, it's like, "You're in such a privileged position and you work so hard and hopefully you have gotten good at this thing. What are you thinking, man?"
But I think it was a natural thing to feel something else and to be aware of other people in my life who needed me around a little more. It started creeping in until it just stayed in.
Q: So then you're back at The Tonight Show and the situation is so publicized. Was the pressure greater?
A: No, everybody had a sigh of relief that we were back. But during this period, there was a shift in late night altogether. It seemed like people had picked sides: they had labeled Jay this and labeled Conan that . It was kind of the same for us to go on and do our show, but it wasn't the same thing you felt from people. It the was not as innocent a feeling.
Q: How did you tell Jay that you were leaving the show, and how did he react?
A: I thought about it a long time. And then one day, I asked him, "You got a minute? I really need to talk to you about something." I said, "I'm thinking about moving on."
It was weird. We had this thing that came out of nowhere and was really good. People enjoyed it. How often do you get two people together and it works out the way it did? I miss doing the show. I miss that we developed something and we got good at it. Maybe for the right reasons it had to end.
But you can't dismiss the fact that you feel a certain loss, which I do. A friend. Somebody you learned a lot from. It's hard to put into words — people go through things, and at a certain point in life where things might be going this direction, you feel some internal change. I don't want my niece to call me "the guy on TV." I can't have that.
Q: What was your last show like?
A: I was really nervous. Not in the sense of [being afraid] I would mess up. But trying not to let everything come into my mind about this whole trek that I've been on and seeing Jay's face and he wasn't happy about it.
At the same time my office was being cleaned out — friends from the show were there partying in the office, trying to have a good time with it. I'm buying beers for the guys that are packing up the desk. It was pretty emotional. It just seemed like the longest show ever. All I could think about was, "What am I going to do?" It wasn't a fun show to do, but it was very meaningful for me.
Q: You went back later as a guest. What was that like?
A: I had a blast. Everybody was happy to see each other. Jay and I hung out and we could just do our thing. I had fun that day. It was just perfect, really. It was like, "Why did I leave? This is wonderful."
Q: Where do you see yourself in your career in 10 years?
A: Hopefully a more balanced individual. It would be great to be on a show that is a mixture of music and comedy — cohosting, playing music on the show, something like that. I definitely see myself doing something else in TV. And I'd like to bring more awareness to how much music helps film, television — everybody — to convey things that they want to convey.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018