Q&A: Jay Leno on touring, living for laughs, social media and more

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

“Hi, this is Jay Leno. I’m sorry to call you early —is this OK?”

It’s a rare day that a celebrity calls (an hour) early for a scheduled phone interview — it’s even rarer for him or her to apologize for doing so. But that’s exactly how our recent chat with Jay Leno, the celebrated comedian, actor, producer and host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” for 22 years, began, when he phoned from his home in Los Angeles to talk about his life, career and current standup tour, which stops at the Palace Theatre on Saturday, April 25.

Even on the phone, Leno, 64, comes off as warm, affable and refreshingly down-to-earth for someone who interviewed pop stars and world leaders on his show — and who won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2014.

Since ending his “Tonight Show” run on Feb. 6, 2014, Leno has ramped up his tour schedule (even while filming a daily talk show he still performed live gigs most weekends), and devoted a significant amount of time to his other passion in life — his collection of more than 200 classic and rare cars and motorcycles — which he shares with viewers through a TV show and YouTube channel, “Jay Leno’s Garage.”

On his love of cars, he said, “The main thing is the fact that comedy is subjective. Sometimes people think you’re funny and sometimes people think you suck. And you know, they’re both right, because everyone has their opinions. But when you take something that’s broken and you fix it, no one can say it’s not working ... There’s a certain amount of pleasure in that.” Here’s what else he had to say:

When you appeared onComedians in Cars Getting Coffee last year,hostJerry Seinfeld said thatwhat keeps comediansgoingis that they are addicted to getting a laugh out of someone. When did you first realize you had a knack for making people laugh?

I remember being really young, like four or five, and I remember that my mother had a bunch of women over, sitting around, talking and drinking coffee. This was in the ’50s and I remember asking what I thought was a legitimate question: “Why do women have humps like camels?” I remember hearing shrieking and laughing, and thinking, “What did I say?” They’d had a couple of glasses of wine. As a performer you remember things that get a reaction, you know?

How old were you when you realized you wanted to become a professional comedian?

I grew up in New England, in a small town, so show business wasn’t really an option. My dad sold insurance for Prudential Insurance Company and he became a manager. Once a month he would put on a show in the office to motivate the salesmen — it was all men in those days. He would ask me, “Hey, what do you think? Do you think this is funny? “And he and I would work on it for a bit, just corny old jokes, but I remember thinking, “Oh, I’d like to go into insurance because once a month you get to do a show.”

That made an impression on me. I just assumed I would have something to do with sales. [Comedy] didn’t seem like a viable way to make a living. I’ll always remember the lady up the street telling me, “You can’t be a comedian unless your father is a comedian.” The wonderful thing about show business is that people who know nothing about it feel free to give you advice.

You perform at more than 200 gigs a year around the world. What do you enjoy most and least about touring?

Usually, when you’re opening for someone else, [the audience] is there to see the singer [or main act], and when you come on, there’s a collective [sigh]. I remember opening for Tom Jones at Caesar’s Palace [in 1978]. We were there for two weeks, and I walk out on opening night and there are like 300 women from the Tom Jones fan club sitting in the front rows. They’re eating bonbons and waiting for Tom Jones to come on. In their minds, any time you’re on stage, well that’s less time Tom will be onstage. They don’t think of you as the opening act; they think of you as taking time away from the Tom Jones show. So I go out and I kind of struggle, but that’s all right. Then I go out the next night and I realize these 300 women have bought tickets to all 14 shows, and they’re all sitting in the same seats, every night, for two weeks … I’d look out and say, “Oh hi, Gladys, how are you?”... It was like a nightmare.

When you finally get to the point where people are coming to see you, it’s actually quite enjoyable and fun. This job is akin to, if someone tells you a funny joke, you can’t wait to repeat that joke to each person that walks by your desk. And by the end of the day, you’ve really learned how to do this … and now you’re waiting for people to walk by your desk so you can tell that story.

It’s the most basic form of human communication. People don’t really gather anymore as a group. People will say, “I watched so-and-so’s comedy special and it wasn’t really that funny.” What did you watch it on, your iPhone? Of course it’s not going to be funny! Watching a comedy show [alone] is not fun. Go to the place. I don’t do HBO specials or records or anything, because, if you want to hear [my act], I will come to where you are to do it. It’s like night and day because it’s a shared experience, and there aren’t a lot of shared experiences anymore.

Youseem tokeep a somewhat low profile on social media. What are your thoughts on social media and comedy?

It’s fine. I just watch people get vilified for remarks they say on Twitter or whatever. In comedy, you say [stuff] off the top of your head. I learned from doing the “Tonight Show” that everybody is mad about something. No matter what jokes you do, somewhere, somebody works for that company, or whatever, and suddenly their voice takes on a huge importance. I’ve watched that new kid, Trevor Noah, from the “Daily Show,” and apparently they found some tweets he wrote six years ago … just stupid guy talk. And, of course it’s all blown-up. It gets to the point where people say things that are inappropriate all the time, but in the old days they would dissipate into air within seconds. Now, it follows you through your whole life. Some remark you made nine years ago, it gets a little crazy ...

I like to do things in person — I don’t want everything I’ve ever said to be part of my permanent record. Because a lot of times you say things and circumstances change. I like to look at people and read their body language as they are saying what they are saying, so that I can get a true picture of what they really mean. It works better for me.

Do you have any memories from past shows in Columbus?

I was in Columbus a long time ago. One of my funniest memories — I can’t remember if it was in Columbus or Cincinnati (I think it was Columbus) — when I was starting on the “Tonight Show,” I was traveling around to city affiliates and I was doing the 6 p.m. news, because I was playing a comedy club in town. So the local TV reporter said, “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar. Can you give me a brief history of yourself?” I said, “I’ve been guest hosting the ‘Tonight Show’ for the last few weeks and I’m on the road and I’m playing so-and-so.” So we come back from a commercial and she goes, “I’m talking to Jay Leno — Leno who claims to have hosted the ‘Tonight Show.’” And I go, “I’m not claiming! I can prove it — there’s videotape.” It was hilarious. Because she hadn’t seen it, she didn’t want to say it was absolutely true.

In your “Tonight Show” epilogue, you said, “I’ve interviewed presidents, astronauts, movie stars it’s just incredible.” What techniques did you employ to help your most challenging interviewees open up to you?

They weren’t really challenging in that people want to be there. We were never an ambush show. It was always just talking to people the way you would normally talk to them. One of my favorite interviews of all time was with somebody from Ohio, Sen. John Glenn. When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I had to write a paper about John Glenn circling the earth, and I got a “C” on it. And then, back in 1998, when John Glenn went up in space at the age of 77, I called my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Simon, and I said, “Mr. Simon, you gave me a ‘C’ on my John Glenn paper. Well, I have the second part of the paper. I’m going to be interviewing Sen. Glenn tonight and I want to try and improve my grade.” When John Glenn came out I told him the story and interviewed him, and … Mr. Simon upgraded me to an “A.” I was sad my mother didn’t live long enough to see me get an “A.”

You said ina recent interview that being a touring comedian is a little like“Groundhog Day” you tend to do the same thing every day and eliminate the parts of it that are not top-notch. What material are you working on right now?

When you do the “Tonight Show” monologue it’s a bit like a newspaper. You sort of talk about the events that happened that day … The advantages are that if something happens Monday afternoon, you have a joke about it Monday night. The disadvantages are that you don’t get a chance to flesh the joke out a little bit, and make it longer. The “Tonight Show” monologues are essentially just throwaway jokes — they have shelf life of maybe five days, and then the story changes and people will forget. When you’re on the road, you have the chance to tell stories, as opposed to just jokes, and that’s probably the biggest difference.

What was the hardest part about leaving theTonight Show after a 22-year run?

It wasn’t hard at all. The real trick is that everyone who has hosted the “Tonight Show” was No. 1 when they left. And that’s the idea — you want to leave when the show is No. 1 … You see people go from, “I’m a big fan of yours,” to, “My mom’s a big fan of yours,” to, “My grandmother loves you.” It’s a natural progression of things. Television is essentially a young person’s game, and you reach a certain point and you go, “OK, this is good. I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun.”

When I did the show it was all about politics and the monologues. Now you’ve got to put on viral videos. You’ve got to take a picture of your lunch and put it on Instagram. A lot of things are different. I think Jimmy [Fallon] brings a great dynamic to the show and has brought the age demo down a bit. He reflects the stuff of his generation. I reflect the stuff of my generation. You have to know when to move on.

What advice do you give to young people who tell you they want to be comedians when they grow up?

I tell them that it’s a great way to make a living. You don’t pollute anything. You don’t hurt anybody. The worst thing that happens in your job is [people] don’t laugh. I’ve always found it to be a pretty great business. You always get more work from other comedians than you will ever get from an agent or manager when you’re starting out. When I was starting out, people like Steve Martin, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Robert Klein, [George] Carlin, [Richard] Pryor, they all helped me. So, consequently, I always try to help other comedians. I got off the phone with two young comedians just before I spoke to you. These 16-year-old kids sent me some of their standup work. They asked for advice and I was flattered that they asked, and they seemed to be honored that I spoke to them, so it worked out very nice.

You can’t do every job. You can’t play every club every day. When I was coming up, people like Steve Martin would tell me, “You should call this club. I don’t really play there anymore because I’m doing bigger venues, but this would be a good place for you.” I remember telling Johnny Carson about Ellen DeGeneres: “You’ve got to see this woman. She’s really funny.” And Ellen got the show. I know there’s a cutthroat element to show business, but, I must say, among comedians, sure there are people who don’t get along, but for the most part, there’s actually a pretty good brotherhood or sisterhood. Everybody seems to watch out for one another.

Palace Theatre

34 W. Broad St., Downtown

8 p.m. Saturday, April 25