Jay Leno on the road again
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.”
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.”