Nov. 1, 2012 12:52
From King of Late Night . . . to Casino King!
Jay Leno has had a long history with late night television. Beginning in 1987, Leno was only substitute hosting for Johnny Carson on the show that would become synonymous with Leno’s name. Five years later, Leno began his reign over The Tonight Show sparking up controversy with David Letterman, then host of Late Night with David Letterman. This story would then forever be embedded in television history through a book and movie. In 2009, Leno’s contract with NBC for The Tonight Show expired and he was succeeded by Conan O’Brien, former host of the Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Leno went on to host a new show The Jay Leno Show, which debuted later that year. Then when ratings weren’t as expected for both shows NBC began changing timeslots, which prompt O’Brien to issue a press release stating, “I believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” In January 2010, O’Brien left The Tonight Show and Leno once again took the throne.
Despite this long—sometimes convoluted—relationship with late night television . . . it was always his love of the stage that kept him going. In 2008, Leno was quoted saying that he was living solely off of his income as a stand-up comic. Now, he’s hitting the road once again and, just kicked off a series of standup gigs in Las Vegas, part of The Mirage Hotel Casino’s “Aces of Comedy” events through November 2013. CULTURE got a chance to talk to Jay about performing live, his love of standup and how it all relates to rebuilding automobile engines . . .
How are you?
Tell a few jokes. Try to make a living.
You spend a lot of time on the road and I noticed that most of your gigs are in casinos.
I’m on the road about 160 dates a year and probably about 100 of them are in casinos. Well, that’s where the shows are; that’s where the theaters are.
Are there any special challenges to doing casino shows? Are the crowds any different?
Actually the great things usually about casinos is they have the best sound, the best lights. You know a lot of times when you do—you know—the function room at the local Holiday Inn you walk out there and say “Hi [feedback noise] my name is [feedback noise]. Hey, can we fix this mic? [feedback noise]. They have terrible sound. You know when you play theaters—that’s what they do. They’re usually union guys. They know what they’re doing. They got sound. They got lights. That’s the best. The nightmares are the outdoor shows. You know you’re in the half shell someplace and it’s windy and some people can’t hear . . . so you look forward to casinos. They’re the best.
Considering you also host The Tonight Show, doing 160 dates a year isn’t exactly a light schedule . . .
It’s not hard. I mean . . . when you’re trying to carry a couple hours of material in your head you have to do it, like you can’t just run a marathon once a year. If you’re going to run a marathon you gotta run every week.
Sure, but isn’t being the host of The Tonight Show and doing that famous monologue every weeknight to an audience of millions of people practice enough?
The stage is not a normal place to be. The more you’re on stage and the more you’re in front of people the more normal it seems. Like I always read these studies that say most people would rather swim in shark-infested waters than stand in front of a crowd or whatever . . . you always hear those things. And that always sounds so bizarre to me because it seems like the easiest thing in the world. But if you’re not on stage for two to three weeks at a time and suddenly you walk out there it seems very foreign. You get thrown by someone coughing or someone heckling . . . but when you do it every day it becomes second nature. That’s why you do it every day.
But no matter how much experience you have you still must have nights when you go out there and have a tough time. Nights when you’re timing is off and nothing comes easy.
Well you know what it is? You reach a point where your wife, your friends; they go, “Hey, you seemed a little off.” I mean if you do this long enough you become professional enough to get the job done. There are obviously days when you do the job better. Like a lot of times people say, “What if you go out there for 90 minutes and don’t get one laugh?” Well that doesn’t really happen. It’s not that I’m being snobby. It doesn’t happen to any professional person. You know what you have to do. There are jobs that are fun and there are jobs that can be work, you know?
So do you think you’ll ever hang it up and stop doing standup or are you gonna keep going out there right up until the end?
No, that’s what I’ve always done. You can stop doing TV, you can stop being in movies—you can stop doing all those things—but you really don’t stop doing . . . I mean I started out as a standup and that’s what I’m going to end up as.
Okay so it’s 2022 or whatever and you’ve decided to step down as the host of The Tonight Show. What—besides doing standup comedy, of course—will you do? Anything you’ve always wanted to try?
I’ll just go back out on the road. What I’ve always done.
Okay, so who’s the funniest comedian in the world right now in your opinion?
You know it’s hard to say who the funniest comedian alive is. I mean comedy is such a subjective thing. Seinfeld is one of my favorites. Jerry always makes me laugh. Louie CK is really funny. Comedians like Cathleen Madigan. There’s a lot of comics out there who are really good. It’s hard to say.
Do you like watching other comics perform because I’ve talked to a few guys who just won’t do it.
Well, I do. You just have to be careful because as a comic you don’t want to watch too much because if something gets in your head it’s hard to get it out. So if you’re on stage and you’re ad-libbing and someone throws a subject at you, you quickly ad-lib something and hopefully it’ll be funny. But if you’ve just seen a comedian do something on that subject and you think it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard you don’t want to repeat it. So, actually you’re trying to not become too influenced.
I was going to ask you about audience participation. How much of your act is interacting with the crowd. You know—ad-libbing, improv.
I would say about 20 percent really.
Ever had a show where you went completely off script and improv’d the whole thing?
Yeah, I’ve had that happen. Look, if you have something that works in Boston and Oklahoma City and Los Angeles . . . chances are it’ll work in Chicago. And if for some reason it doesn’t then you’ll do something else. But whatever you come up with probably won’t be as good as what you’ve honed and practiced your whole life, you know what I mean?
Do you feel like you have a responsibility to keep it clean and family-friendly when you do stand-up because of your position?
I’m sort of a big-tent performer. My attitude has always been I try to appeal to the most people possible. And sometimes it works to your benefit, sometimes it doesn’t. You know, when I started out I was never dirty enough to be a “dirty comic.” So why have “f@#k” and “sh*&” in your act when it doesn’t add that much to it. Because if you just take it out you’ll appeal to another whole side of the audience.
You mentioned Jerry Seinfeld earlier and he’s a great example of a comic who has always been very funny without getting dirty.
Well, that’s the thing because to me—I have nothing against comics who work dirty—it’s fine with me; all it has to be is funny—but a lot of times people use it as a crutch and the end of a joke is “f@#k you.” Well, that’s not really a punch line. People are just reacting to the shock of the word and after a while the word loses its shock value.
Do you have anything special planned for your live shows coming up? Dancing girls? Pyrotechnics? Jungle cats? Or are you going to do it old school—just you and a microphone?
Me and a microphone. Yeah that’s pretty much what it is. You know it’s just sort of pure standup. That’s what I like. When I go see performers that’s what I like: one-man shows . . . you know there’s so much gimmickry in movies and stuff. I know all these big action films are exciting, but to me they’re not as good as a tight little movie where it’s two people just . . . just acting. And when I see a comedian I like to see . . . you know we very rarely use our human one-on-one skills anymore. Everything now seems to be involving the Internet or texting or whatever it might be. And the idea of having one-on-one communication with people in a room where it’s very intimate . . . I like that.
There’s definitely something magical about seeing someone perform live—like seeing a band create music out of thin air.
Yes, that’s right. You know looking in the window of a nightclub and seeing a band and hearing it through the window is totally different that being on the other side of the window and being in the room and absorbing it. In both instances you’re hearing the music—you’re just hearing more when you’re on the other side of the glass because you’re sharing it with other people. And that’s basically, hopefully, what comedy is.
What do you think your strengths and weaknesses are as a performer?
Hmm. I’m not sure where to go with that. I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but besides that I don’t really know.
You’re a legendary car and motorcycle collector. Do you have any favorites?
Well if I had a favorite I wouldn’t have so many cars. I like restoring cars—fixing them up—and I enjoy the mechanical process. You know when you’re a comedian somebody thinks you’re funny, and somebody doesn’t. And they’re both right because it’s subjective. But when something’s broken . . . when an engine is apart and you put it together and you make it run people can’t say it’s not running. ’Cause, look it’s right there. It’s running. It’s a clear-cut, yes or no answer. ’Cause they are people who say, “Oh, I love Jay Leno,” and there are other people who say, “Oh, I can’t stand that guy, he sucks.” Well okay, I can’t argue with either one of them. You both have your own opinion and you’re both correct. But the guy who says I suck can’t say the car isn’t running, you know?
So you can actually rebuild car engines? You know how to do that kind of stuff?
Well yeah, that’s what we do.
That’s pretty amazing.
No it’s not. Americans used to be able to do all kinds of stuff like that.
We have gotten a little soft, I guess. Which reminds me: I like the bit you do on The Tonight Show where you ask people fairly simple historical and geographical questions that they can’t seem to answer.
Even though you’re kind of making fun of people you do it in a fairly gentle way. Do you like doing that?
I do enjoy that. It’s fun for me, yeah.
Does it ever amaze you how much the average American doesn’t know about basic subjects like the solar system?
But that’s sort of the fun of it. And we never pick on anybody that’s sort of like, obviously looks like they have a problem or seems handicapped mentally in some way. We ask them, “Are you a college student? Great, can we talk to you a few minutes?” The best are the people who go, “Oh the people on your show are so stupid!” and I go, “Yeah, I know, I know. So who was the first president of the United States?” And they say, “Abraham Lincoln.”
Let me ask you a few current events questions. What do you think the biggest news story of the year has been so far for comedians?
Hmm. There’s not just one, you know. The story changes every day. The gay rights thing is pretty good. You can [get] a lot out of that. Obviously conservative vs. liberal is really funny. There’s a lot of material there with Romney and Obama. It’s hard to pick one because yesterday’s jokes are just gone. They’re not funny at all because you did them yesterday. But anything involving men behaving badly.
Everybody knows a brilliant, yet fatally flawed progressive congressman?
Most people don’t know anyone who has nuclear weapons in their backyard or anything like that, but everybody knows a guy who behaves badly. The guy’s in a position of authority—it’s even better.
In this interview, Jay Leno seemed pretty noncommittal to the medical cannabis cause (When pressed on the issue, he said, “Ah, I don’t care one way or the other. I mean anybody who wants marijuana can get it, so it’s not an issue I have any interest in.”), but that hasn’t always been the case. Just two years ago, with pro-pot pundit Bill Maher (the cover boy for our January 2012 issue, by the way) as a guest, Leno did opine about efforts to legalize marijuana (at the time there were several legalization and cannabis tax-and-regulate measures floating around). “Here’s my thing on the issue,” Leno told Maher in March 2010. “I’ve nothing against legalization.” Leno would later go on to say, however, that he didn’t agree that raising revenue for state coffers via a cannabis tax was a good idea, comparing it to a “sin tax” that is characteristic of alcohol and tobacco sales. Interestingly, in his discussion with Maher, Leno expressed his distaste for the possibility of marijuana—once legalized—becoming a mass-marketed corporate commodity—a fear expressed by many others in the cannabis and MMJ community over the years. “I say decriminalize it,” he told Maher. “But once you bring in Philip Morris, once it become a business, and advertising and all that nonsense starts . . . If you want to grow it in your backyard and you want to smoke it, you get it from your friend, that’s fine. I just don't want to see it in stores and don’t want to see the guy saying [mimicking a television commercial pitchman], ‘This is the best high you’ll ever have.’”