The US chat show host got his sensibilities from his Scottish mother
Known as the King of Late Night and Jutting Jaw Jay, Jay Leno is best known for hosting The
Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Jay Leno Show. Famous for his square jaw and protruding chin, Leno is also well-known for his extensive automobile and motorbike collection.
A celebrated talk show host, he received the Mark Twain Prize in 2014 and has also won two Primetime Emmy Awards. Born James Douglas Muir Leno, to an Italian father, Angelo, and a Scottish mother, he cites his mother as an influence on his comedic career.
‘She was always conscious of how the jokes would affect the people I was talking about, like she said, “What if you hurt President Clinton’s feelings?”‘ he says. ‘She affected the kind of comedy I wanted to do. She had an ear for what was appropriate.
Catherine ‘Cathy’ Muir Leno was sent over to America from Greenock, Scotland aged just 11 by her father after her mother left him for another man. Struggling with six kids, and being unable to find anyone to take her in, her father sent her to live with an older sister and work as a serving girl. On meeting Angelo Leno, she was forced to learn to cook Italian food before she could marry him, which Jay thinks is the reason she can’t cook Scottish food. ‘Scottish mums can’t cook. Scottish cuisine? I don’t think there’s any such thing. When you buy a Mars bar... they dump them in hot oil.’
Catherine married Angelo Leno on 30
Below left: Leno as a young man. Below right: Leno’s Scottish mother Cathy married his Italian father Angelo after being sent from Greenock to America aged 11, after her own father was abandoned by his wife and struggled to bring up six children on his own.
So I’m on the stage, and I see these college kids laughing during my performance, and my mom is going ‘Shhh! Shhh!’ I stop and go, ‘Ma, you don’t shush people at a comedy show!’
November 1935, the same date as her son and his wife Mavis many years later. She had her first son, Patrick, in 1940, who grew up to fight in the Vietnam War and become a graduate of Yale University. She had Jay ten years later in 1950, and raised both boys in Andover, Massachusetts. Patrick passed away in 2002 due to cancer, just like his mother, who passed in 1993 aged 82.
Despite her son being in the limelight with stand-up comedy and hosting The To
night Show, Catherine never liked being the centre of attention. ‘Scottish people are reserved, that’s why it’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno – not Starring Jay Leno,’ he says. ‘And even with that, my mother would say “Why do you have to have your name all over everything?”’
Neither Catherine nor Angelo understood Jay’s profession in comedy but they supported his performances, going to many, including one famous gig at New York’s Carnegie Hall. ‘So I’m on the stage, and I see these college kids laughing during my performance, and my mom is going “Shhh! Shhh!” I stop and go, “Ma, you don’t shush people at a comedy show! They’re supposed to laugh!” My mother was stunned.’
But despite not understanding his chosen profession, Catherine was very proud of her son. ‘He used to disturb the class, but no one could get mad at him because everyone was laughing. It’s nice to know that they like him. I mean, this is your son and they like him.’
Jay Leno is one of the few comedians who is clean and doesn’t make a fuss about his status as a comedian. He is still a humble man who only uses his mon-
ey from his gigs, rather than his income from The Tonight Show. His wife Mavis Leno knows how dedicated her husband is to his work. ‘He loves doing his job better than anything else he does,’ she says. ‘It’s in his family. The whole male side of his family is like that.’
Leno never had a bad word to say about his mother and even if he used her in his jokes, she never got mad. ‘When he’s talking about me then I know he’s thinking about me, so it’s fine.’
Leno is also known for his automobile and motorbike collection which is held in two large bunkers at Burbank Airport. He has 150 cars and 92 bikes in his collection and all are drivable. Not only does Leno have family ties to Scotland, he also
Leno visited Scotland with his mother and father, bringing her back for the first time since she was 11 years old
drove a one-of-a-kind 1951 Ecurie Ecosse XK120 roadster by Jaguar, during the Mille Maglia in 2014.
Jay bought his parents a pearl white Italian Cadillac, which his mother hated. She would tell everyone they would meet on the road that ‘we’re not really Cadillac people – our son got us this.’ According to Leno, in her very Scottish way the self-effacing Catherine was so embarrassed by the car that she would always lie beneath the line of sight, under the dashboard, not wanting to be seen by other people.
Leno visited Scotland with his mother and father, bringing her back for the first time since leaving when she was 11 years-old. She was apprehensive at first about leaving America as she wasn’t sure she would be let back in to the country.
‘It turns out my father took her down to get her citizenship papers,’ laughs Leno. ‘To become a citizen if you had more than five questions wrong you didn’t pass so my mother got five questions wrong and the sixth question was ‘What is the US Constitution?’ and my mother said “It’s a boat”. And the judge said “Well, you failed” and so my father argued with the judge and the judge said “Fine, fine you’re a citizen, get out! Get out! So sixty years go by and my mother is afraid that the judge put a note somewhere that takes it away.’
Since leaving The Tonight Show Leno spends most of his time with his wife and his cars, he still tours, doing comedy shows, but has not been back to Scotland since taking his mother before she died. But that does not mean he will not be back in years to come; indeed he has pleged to get more involved in Scottish culture. His mother would be proud of him.
Leno never had a bad word to say about his mother and even if he used her in his jokes. she never got mad. “When he’s talking about me then I know he’s thinking about me, so it’s fine”
Above left: Leno on stage at the Carnegie Hall in New York. Above right: Leno’s older brother Patrick fought in Vietnam.
Image: Jay Leno’s mother, Catherine Muir left her home town of Greenock for America when she was only eleven years old.
Catherine was born here in Greenock