Jay Leno on show business: Don't fall in love with a hooker

Jay Leno sits on his desk on his final night hosting The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in Burbank.
Jay Leno sits on his desk on his final night hosting The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in Burbank.PHOTO: REUTERS

(NYTimes) - When you're one of a few people in television history to have hosted your own late-night show for more than 20 years and then stepped away from it, what do you do now? If you're Jay Leno, you hit the road.

Leno, who succeeded Johnny Carson as host of NBC's The Tonight Show in 1992 and left the programme in 2014 (with a bit of drama in between), is still working the stand-up job he had before his coveted TV gig. By his own estimate, Leno, 67, plays about 210 live shows a year - up from the 150 or so he did annually while still on The Tonight Show - at clubs and casinos, and at events like this Saturday's season spectacular at Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York.

Leno, who also continues to host Jay Leno's Garage on CNBC, explained in a recent phone interview that his desire to stay active as a stand-up is rooted in "being an observer".

"Real comics don't really fit in anywhere," he said, speaking from Los Angeles. "You're not really a blue-collar guy any more. But you're not comfortable around rich people."

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Leno spoke further about his life after late night and challenges of being a political joke-teller in a polarised environment. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: What is it like to have once hosted a late-night show five nights a week and then stepped away from it?

A: People always think, you have a TV show, then it ends. The next night, you go, "Where's my table at Spago?" "I'm sorry, Mr Leno, it's been given to Mr Fallon." "What? That's my table!" It doesn't exist that way. The real trick is to make show business money but live in the real world. And then you tend to appreciate things a little bit more.

Q: So you didn't go through a withdrawal period after it ended?

A: What I tell people in show business is, Don't fall in love with a hooker. That's what show business is. The greatest thing about The Tonight Show is that you could be around show business without being immersed in it. When Charlie Sheen would come on and tell a story about some hooker pushing him out of his Mercedes on Mulholland Drive, it was always hilarious, but I don't want to live that life. I did the show and I went home every night like it was a school night, to work on the monologues.

Q: Do you watch any of the current late-night shows?

A: I enjoy everybody. I always say Jimmy (Fallon) is the closest of anybody to Carson. But I love (Stephen) Colbert's hard-hitting monologues. Samantha Bee is terrific. I like Trevor Noah. I loved Larry Wilmore. The people who fall by the wayside are the people who have nothing to say. They come out and go: "Woo, how are you all doing? You all good?" Yeah, I'm fine, just give me the jokes, okay?

Q: You don't experience a Larry Sanders-like feeling of self-loathing when you watch other people's shows?

A: Not self-loathing, but I'm a huge believer in low self-esteem. I'm dyslexic, so my mother always said, "You're going to have to work twice as hard as the other kids to get the same thing." That was a plan that actually worked for me.

Q: How is it that there are so many more late-night shows now, but they're still largely hosted by white, male performers?

A: I was talking to a younger comedian who said to me: "You and Seinfeld were lucky. You came up in the golden age of stand-up, when everybody could get in." No, there's no golden age. Every time is just as difficult as every other time. The difference is, now you can rocket to the middle. But you can't get past the middle. You just wind up playing to your audience. As opposed to trying to make your material work for any audience, people go, "I only play to this kind of audience."

Q: You don't think that there are institutional roadblocks for women or minority comedians?

A: I would always meet people that go, "You can't get a job as a comic unless you're in the union, and you can't get in the union unless you're a comic." I'd say to them: "Right, then quit. It can't be done. Just leave, okay?" Some of those things may be true until somebody comes along that breaks the mold. Roseanne, back in the 80s, was a groundbreaking show. If you had put Roseanne (Barr) onstage with five other women, which one is going to be the big star? I don't know whether you would have picked Roseanne. Samantha Bee has broken out in a sea of white guys and done quite well. I see more and more female stand-ups out there.

Q: You took pains on The Tonight Show to joke equally about both political parties. Would that approach be possible now?

A: It's a different time now. It's kind of ugly. On Jay Leno's Garage, we did a thing where we had Colin Powell race Joe Biden in Corvettes. The two of them trash-talked each other and made fun of each other, and people just seemed so happy to see a Republican and a Democrat being nice to each other.

Last year, before the election, I was playing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That's pretty much Trump territory. I would do a Trump joke, and then a Hillary (Clinton) joke. I deliberately did one and then the other. I did about a dozen of them. After the show, this lady says: "I'm a fan, but I have a bone to pick with you: I notice you didn't do any Hillary jokes. You only made fun of Donald Trump." What she would do is, every time I would tell a Trump joke, she would turn to her friend and go, "Ugh, can you believe what he said?" She didn't even hear the other jokes. It was a classic case of just hearing what you want to hear.

Q: Do you think it's a more perilous time for comedians who joke about politics?

A: We live in a time now where what you say is so much worse than what you do - when words carry more consequence than deeds. Like this whole thing with Kathy Griffin. If that had been really funny, it would have been okay. All judgment goes out the window if something is really funny. But it was just too serious and not funny enough. You didn't look at that picture and laugh. She stepped out of her arena. Her arena is making fun of show business - nobody takes (show business) that seriously. Then, suddenly, you step into somebody's political beliefs and oh boy.

( Q: Do you worry about maintaining your TV legacy when your show doesn't live on in reruns?

A: Luckily, you as a performer don't live on. You die, eventually. If you're worried about your legacy? Oh, shut up. Nobody cares. I was in Vegas and they were taking down an Elvis Presley exhibit at one of the hotels. I said, "What's going on?" They said, "We're taking this down, the kids don't really know who this is any more." If you don't know who Elvis is, I don't think my legacy is something you have to worry about.