The day after Jay Leno wrapped up his final performance as host of “The Tonight Show” in February 2014, he was on a plane to Florida to kick off his extensive comedy tour across the country.
And from an outside perspective, that would seem like quite a culture shock for any performer: to go from standing on the same network television set every night for more than 20 years, to performing in a different city to different audiences for months on end.
But Leno, who’s been called one of the hardest-working comedians in the business, said it hardly even feels like a change of pace.
“I’ve been on the road since 1969, so it’s really nothing new. I was on the road two days a week when I was doing ‘The Tonight Show,’” he said. “You can’t run a marathon unless you run every day. That’s the thing with comedy, you’re trying to keep an hour or an hour and a half of material in your head, and you can’t do it once a month. You’ve got to do it at least a few times a week.”
As someone who’s struggled with dyslexia all his life, performing is like a training session for Leno. He doesn’t write down any of his jokes, so instead he memorizes the ones that make people laugh.
Leno joked that he can’t always remember all his ex-girlfriends’ names, “but a joke, I think it makes a little notch in your brain. I can remember even as a little kid when I said something that was funny,” he said.
That’s part of the reason Leno is enjoying his live stand-up gigs right now. He gets to experiment with different material and figure out what works, a luxury he didn’t have on TV.
“When you do a TV show like ‘The Tonight Show,’ you do different jokes in the same place every night. When you go on the road, you tend to do the same jokes in a different place every night,” he said. “So the advantage to that is you get to polish them. Like, a lot of times, on a Monday something would happen and on Monday night you’d do a joke about it on ‘The Tonight Show’. Then on Tuesday, you’d think, ‘Ah, I have a better joke for that,’ but you can’t do it again because you already did it,” he said.
At the same time, that’s something Leno said he will miss about late-night TV.
“Something happens that day and you have if not the first joke, then certainly one of the first jokes about it. I mean, you know, a story breaks and it’s fun to write jokes under the gun. That was part of the fun of it,” he said, adding that he also enjoyed being around celebrities every day and poking fun at the whole Hollywood culture.
“Show business is like champagne. If you drink it every day, you become an alcoholic. But doing ‘The Tonight Show,’ I was able to observe show business,” he said.
Leno has always had the persona of an average guy who just likes to laugh at all the absurdities of everyday life in America, and that played to his advantage in the late-night talk show world in the ’80s, when he started guest hosting for Johnny Carson.
But even after decades on network television, Leno still doesn’t identify as a celebrity, nor does he want to be treated like one. When he’s touring from city to city, he travels by himself, without tour managers or body guards.
“The whole thing of being a comedian is having funny things happen to you, and when you isolate yourself from the general public, those funny things don’t happen,” he said, citing the time somebody asked for his autograph in an airport, thinking he was Larry King. “And I go, ‘You know, I’m not Larry King, Larry’s like 30 years older than I am.’ I mean, it just made me laugh.”
When he’s not on the road, Leno’s hobby of fixing up old cars also keeps him grounded, he said. His personal collection of 135 cars and 100 motorcycles might seem like your typical case of celebrity excess, but it’s clearly more about his love for auto mechanics than it is a status symbol.
“Comedy is pretty subjective. Some people like you, some people think you suck. And they’re both correct, it’s subjective. But if you fix something that’s broken like an engine, then nobody can say it’s not running,” he said. “Plus, there’s a great deal of satisfaction. When you work with your hands and you fix something all day, then you wash your hands and go into show business mode, it’s a nice change. If you stay in show business mode all day long, then you become like a narcissistic crazy person.”
Leno has merged his love for cars and show business with his Emmy Award-winning web series, “Jay Leno’s Garage.” After nine years on YouTube, the concept was picked up for an hour-long, weekly series on CNBC. “There some comedic elements to it, but it’s mostly about cars and motorcycles and anything that rolls and makes noise,” he said.
The TV show marks his first return to network television after handing the reigns of “The Tonight Show” to Jimmy Fallon last year.
Now that he and David Letterman have both graduated from late-night TV, Leno said he thinks the format of the shows might change.
“I think Letterman and I are the last of the guys that do monologue, comedy bit, guest. Nowadays you’ve got to have social media, you’ve got to have viral videos, and musical guests. People’s attention spans have shortened,” he said.
But what Leno really has a problem with is something that the networks haven’t changed over the years.
“The only thing that remains the same is that it’s just seems to be all white guys. It would be nice to see a bit more diversity, female hosts, African-American hosts, Puerto Ricans, I mean anybody,” he said. “A bunch of white guys are leaving, and they’re being replaced by a bunch of other white guys. ... The demographics are changing, and you have to meet those needs.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.