By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer
"What, are you nuts?" Katie Couric shouts into the telephone, making it clear that she's never tried stand-up comedy. Until now.
The popular Today show co-anchor swaps places with Jay Leno, NBC's Tonight Show host, in a May sweeps' "trading places'' stunt today (11:35 p.m., Channels 5, 22).
"I've never done anything like this before in my life," says Couric, 46, who has been a Today show fixture for half of her 24 years in TV news.
"I think that's part of the appeal (of the swap), just to try something new. I'm just going to sort of muddle along and do my best."
Leno, 53, will sit in for her on Today this morning (7-10 a.m., Channels 5, 22) with Matt Lauer, who will trade places with a New York cab driver on Thursday. News reader Ann Curry swaps jobs with soccer star Mia Hamm on Wednesday.
Couric claims credit for the stunt. She first suggested it to former Today boss Jeff Zucker after he was promoted to NBC Entertainment president 2 1/2 years ago.
"Shockingly, once in a while I come up with an idea every six or seven years," Couric says.
Expect to hear more of her self-deprecating humor when she steps on the Tonight Show stage in Burbank, Calif. She promises to open with a monologue and prepare some taped comedy segments, before sitting behind Jay's desk.
"I'm going to attempt to do a monologue," she says.
Will she write any of her own jokes, like Leno?
"I'm definitely not going to write my own stuff. Are you nuts?" she shouts again into the phone.
"I think I'll find out how difficult it is to be funny," she says. "I tell knock-knock jokes to my kids - and I think they're hilarious - but I'm not sure America will necessarily concur."
Leno, also on the conference call, has told her not to worry if a joke bombs. If the audience loves you - and America does love Couric, co-host of TV's most popular morning show - they will still like her if a joke flops, he says.
"If a joke works, it's funny. And if a joke doesn't work, it will probably even be funnier," Leno says.
Couric and Leno disagree on who has the harder job.
Leno praises Couric for being able to juggle breaking news stories and lighter fare (cooking, celebrities, etc.) during the three-hour telecast. Couric admires how Leno keeps the one-hour Tonight show audience entertained.
"I think for many, many reasons that Jay has the toughest job," she says. "Jay is so funny that even if a guest isn't funny, it will usually be a funny interview. ... There's so much more pressure on him to make ... his guests look good."
And that pressure is starting to drive her nuts.
"Obviously, I've been thinking about this like 24/7," she says.
So Couric is stacking the deck. Her first guest will be actor Mike Myers, whom she knows from her Austin Powers in Goldmember cameo last year.
"When I do the Tonight Show, I've got to count on the guests being funny," she says.
Leno says his biggest challenge may be waking up. Normally he goes to bed at 3 a.m., just a couple of hours before Couric arrives at NBC's Rockefeller Plaza studios.
It's no joke
Interviewing Today guests shouldn't be a problem for Leno, since that's what he does on his show. The difficult part will be refraining from making a joke during the conversations.
"You have to fight that tendency of just putting laughs in there, if there's some sort of serious (interview) we're doing," he says.
Couric says Leno's biggest adjustment may be reading the TelePrompter without looking "like you're a deer caught in the headlights." Today producers also have another worry: that Leno will be too loud.
"I'm getting notes like, 'Jay, it's morning, so don't shout. They're sleeping,' " he says.
Even if nobody laughs at her jokes, Couric will make Tonight Show history. She is the first guest host since Leno replaced Johnny Carson 11 years ago. Leno only takes four weeks of vacation a year.
Is he nuts?
"My staff works incredibly hard," Leno explains. "If I'm not here, they have to work twice as hard. My attitude has always been: I take the smallest office, but I get the most money, so it kind of evens out in an odd sort of way."
Both say they hope viewers will enjoy the swap.
Fresh and fun
"I just thought anything to keep the show fresh and fun is a good idea," Couric says. "We're just going to have fun with it, and do the best we can... I think people will appreciate this in the spirit in which we're doing it.
"This is just kind of a fun, goofy thing. We thought it would be enjoyable for us... and we hope people have a good time watching it," she says.
Even if she kills as a stand-up comic, Couric insists she has no designs on Jay's job. But permanently trading places with Julie Andrews is another thing.
Is she nuts?
"I love the job I have," Couric says. "But I'd love to be Julie Andrews in my next life, and have a magnificent singing voice. But that's clearly not going to happen in this life."
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