Jay Leno on the road again

The Republican Herald - This Weekend - - News - BY STEVE KNOPPER CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Ev­ery­thing about a phone in­ter­view with Jay Leno is easy. He calls 15 min­utes ear­lier than the sched­uled time. He hap­pily an­swers ev­ery ques­tion, even the tough ones about NBC and Co­nan O’Brien. And he rolls out charm­ing anec­dotes as if push­ing but­tons on a standup com­edy ma­chine, like the one he has told many times about the 94- year- old woman who sold him a 1953 Hud­son Hor­net for $ 5,000, prompt­ing him to re­fur­bish it, then in­vite her and her sons— 72 and 74 years old— for a ride. (“The two kids start pok­ing each other in the back, and she starts say­ing, ‘ You stop it!’ ” Leno re­calls.)

But the eas­i­est ques­tion, by far, is whether Leno will ever re­turn to late- night tele­vi­sion, which he gave up for good in 2014 once his NBC con­tract ex­pired. “No,” he said flatly. “I did it 22 years, and at some point, you say to your­self, ‘ I shouldn’t have to know all of Jay Z’s mu­sic.’ A 66- year- old guy cri­tiquing a hip- hop song — it’s a lit­tle silly. When you’re 40, cri­tiquing a su­per­model, it’s sexy; when you’re 66, you’re the creepy old guy.”

Leno, the stand- up comic with the big chin, friendly man­ner and en­dear­ingly squeaky voice, took over “The Tonight Show” from re­tir­ing Johnny Car­son in 1992. His re­tire­ment has been far less event­ful than his fi­nal years at NBC, in which he be­stowed the show upon O’Brien, then ac­cepted the net­work’s in­vi­ta­tion to re­verse course and re­turn to the iconic desk and chair. O’Brien was fu­ri­ous, wouldn’t stop com­plain­ing about the slight for years and even­tu­ally ac­cepted an­other show on TBS. Today, al­though he has an online show called “Jay Leno’s Garage,” Leno’s re­tire­ment gig is stand- up com­edy.

It’s a job he has done since he was a stu­dent at Bos­ton’s Emer­son Col­lege in the early ’ 70s. And even Leno’s harsh­est de­trac­tors, those­who saw him as happy- face late- night com­edy, the guy who made the silly Danc­ing Ito jokes dur­ing theO. J. Simp­son trial, ac­knowl­edge his great­ness at the medium. He’s fast and sharp, and one of his ef­fec­tive on­go­ing shticks is to talk with mem­bers of the au­di­ence and make up jokes on the spot.

“You lis­ten to what peo­ple say. The trick is you don’t go for the ob­vi­ous. If it’s a big fat guy, you make fun of his tie,” he said. “Then even­tu­ally he will get the mes­sage, or the au­di­ence gets the mes­sage, that you’re not be­ing cruel.… Au­di­ences think as a group. When you at­tack one mem­ber of the au­di­ence, you at­tack the whole au­di­ence.”

Dur­ing a half- hour phone in­ter­viewfromhis LosAn­ge­les home, Leno is not shy about de­fend­ing him­self. He goes into a long rant about the O’Brien in­ci­dent.

“I don’t want to run Co­nan down. Co­nan’s fine,” Leno said. “Ev­ery­body makes this whole deal: ‘ Some­how you took this show back.’ I didn’t take it back. The net­work came to me: ‘ Want to do a half- hour?’ Co­nan said, ‘ I’m not OK with that’ and quit. I’m not sure why I was sup­posed to go, ‘ No.’ ”

Dur­ing the in­ter­view, Leno hap­pily slips into stand- up sev­eral times, par­tic­u­larly when talk­ing about his par­ents. His fa­ther, An­gelo, sold in­sur­ance, and his mother, Cathryn, was a homemaker. Jay promised An­gelo he’d buy him a Cadil­lac if he ever “made it,” then in fact bought him a Cadil­lac and a Lin­coln. His fa­ther loved the car, but Cathryn was so em­bar­rassed that she shrunk be­low the dash­board so no­body could see her.

“We’re not Cadil­lac peo­ple!” she told her fam­ily.

“We’re driv­ing a Cadil­lac,” An­gelo re­sponded. “That makes us Cadil­lac peo­ple.”

Today, Leno seems re­lieved his “Tonight Show” ex­pe­ri­ence is over. He doesn’t miss the net­work’s elab­o­rate “notes” on even the most triv­ial details. Leno re­ceived one that read: “Hey, it’s sum­mer, let’s do the showin bathing suits!” ( He man­aged to es­cape that one.) “When you do ‘ The Tonight Show,’ you do new jokes in the same place ev­ery night. When you’re on the road, you do the same jokes in a dif­fer­ent place ev­ery night,” he said. “On the road, you can do a joke on Mon­day, change it a bit on Tues­day, change it a bit onWed­nes­day, then you have a show on Sat­ur­day or Sun­day, you have a bit of a story.”

Un­prompted, he com­pares him­self with his old friend and col­league, David Let­ter­man, who lost out to Leno for NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” Let­ter­man left NBC for CBS, and the sub­se­quent latenight ri­valry lasted more than 20 years. Leno sug­gests that a sort of in­tro­vert- ex­tro­vert dy­namic may have been at play.

“Dave was al­ways a broad­caster first and a co­me­dian sec­ond. That’s not a put­down. Dave hated the road,” Leno said. “I loved the road. I love do­ing the stand- up. If I walk into a room, and there’s a group of mag­a­zines and a group of peo­ple, I go to the group of peo­ple and just start talk­ing.

“I’ll do ‘ The Tonight Show’ un­til that gravy train crashes,” he con­tin­ues. “Luck­ily, it lasted 22 years. And then you go back on the road again.”

TRIBUNE NEWS SER­VICE

Jay Leno is loving be­ing back on the road do­ing his stand- up com­edy rou­tine af­ter 22 years as host of the “The Tonight Show.”

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