You’ve loved Jay Leno as the affable host of “The Tonight Show” since 1992. And now that era has come to an end, with the hallowed torch being passed on to Jimmy Fallon shortly after the Winter Olympics ended in mid-February.
So what does Leno do now? What he’s always done, of course — continue to make people laugh. Leno makes his debut at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami on Sunday, doing stand-up comedy, basically extended versions of his “Tonight Show” monologues.
Leno talked to The Miami Herald about the show, how he feels now that he’s able to go out on a “school night,” and what he admires the most about Johnny Carson.
What’s a Jay Leno stand-up show like?
Whoo! Well, it’s a little different than what we do on “The Tonight Show” — I mean, when you do a monologue on “The Tonight Show,” you’re basically doing jokes that have a shelf-life of two to three days, maybe, talking about current events. You know, a joke you tell on a Monday on “The Tonight Show” — if you told that same joke a week later, it’d seem hopelessly out of date, because facts change and things happen.
The monologue jokes tend to be more along the one-liner situation, where you move fairly quickly from one topic to another. When you do a stand-up show, you can stretch it out a little bit and tell a bit more story with things. You know, it’s funny — when you do something like “The Tonight Show,” you tell different jokes in the same place every night. Then when you go on the road, you tell the same jokes in a different place every night. But the advantage of being on the road is, if you think of a joke on Monday and tell it on “The Tonight Show” Monday night, it’s pretty much gone forever. And a lot of the time you’ll say after you did the joke, “Ahh! I had a better punch line, and I should have done it this way or that way.” But when you work a different place on the road, you can sort of try it out Monday and hone it and work on it Tuesday, and try it a little differently Wednesday. By the time the weekend comes, you’ve got it the way you wanted.
You’ve been making people laugh for more than three decades now.
Well, it’s a lot of fun. This job is not really different from if someone tells you a funny joke, and you tell it to each person that passes by your desk. By the end of the day, you’re waiting for people to go by so you can tell them the joke.
Plus, when you get to this point, it gets to be all gravy. By that I mean, when you start out — I used to open for Tom Jones and all these kind of guys. … And I was doing two weeks with Tom Jones in Vegas once, and every night, the same 300 women would show up from the Tom Jones fan club. They had bought tickets to all 14 shows over the two weeks, and they would sit in the front row in the same seats every night. And I would have to go out and tell the same jokes to the same 300 people every single night. It was like a nightmare. And they would be pissed off, because in their eyes, if I was not onstage now, Tom would be singing. So I’m taking his time, you know what I mean?
But when you’ve been on TV for awhile, people kind of know you a little bit. And then it’s really fun, because they’re with you from the get-go. I mean, you can lose them — that’s certainly true, too — but it’s a bit more fun.
Is your radar always on, 24/7, just walking around the street, like, “Oh, I can use that in my act.”
Yeah. I think that is true. You know, I saw something in the paper yesterday that I was gonna try out. It said that at the London Zoo, zoologists noticed that when people come in to the monkey cage with cellphones, the monkeys take their cellphones away. And now they’re trying to retrain the monkeys not to do that. And my thing is, no! Take these monkeys, put ‘em in movie theaters, put ‘em in restaurants — I mean, how great would that be: You’re sitting with your wife having dinner and some guy at the next table is talking on his cellphone. Imagine how great it would be if a monkey came over and just took his cellphone. That’d be fantastic! So I heard that story in the news, and I can’t wait to maybe work on that joke a little bit and flesh it out and see if it works. I mean it seems, funny, doesn’t it?
So do you feel a weight lifted off your shoulders in recent weeks?
Not necessarily a weight, because I certainly enjoyed doing it. You know, we were able to keep the show No. 1 for 20 years. But after a while, it becomes diminishing returns. After a while, you realize, OK it’s time to step aside for the younger guy. And I’m fine with it. I couldn’t be happier, and I talk to Jimmy once, maybe twice a week, and I like him, and he’s a good guy.
And it’s kind of fun to do other stuff now. I mean, when you have a job like “The Tonight Show,” you have to write jokes every single day. The other day, I went out on a Wednesday night — you can’t do that if you host “The Tonight Show.” You can’t go out on a school night — you’ve gotta write jokes every day.
How much of that is you, and how much is writers?
We have terrific writers. Nobody can write that many jokes — you gotta write 30 or 35 jokes a day. What you do is, guys submit the jokes, sometimes you do the joke exactly as the writer wrote it, sometimes you take one writer’s set-up and put it with another writer’s punch line. But it’s all a collaborative effort. Anybody that says they can do it all by themselves is a liar.
You’ve talked about how much you admired Johnny Carson. What about him do you admire so much?
You know, when I was a kid, the thing that was so amazing about Johnny was, he always had a monologue. If there was a plane crash, a national tragedy, whatever it was, he always did a monologue. And I kinda learned from him that when times are serious, you do silly jokes, and when times are silly, you can do more serious jokes. He was a good guy that just had his finger on the pulse of how America felt and thought about things. I always remember that Johnny always had the great common touch. When I was a kid, Dean Martin came on one time and he was wearing these handmade Italian shoes, and Johnny said, “Whew, look at those shoes — how much did those cost?” And Dean said $300, which would have been like a thousand dollars. And Johnny went [whistles] “Three-hundred dollars!?” Well, you know Johnny could buy $300 shoes all day long if he wanted to. But he wasn’t that kind of guy — he had a modest sensibility. Even his clothing line, when he had his Johnny Carson clothing line, it wasn’t upscale, fancy stuff — it was right down the middle of the road, that a regular person could afford.
That leads me to your interest in collecting classic cars. How did that start?
Well, I always worked at car dealerships when I was a kid, and I always liked anything that rolls, explodes and makes noise.
How many cars do you have in your collection now?
Oh, man — you sound like my wife! Probably about 90 motorcycles and about 125 cars, something like that.
Any of them your true favorites, your pets?
Well, I like them all. I mean, there are some rare, valuable cars and then there are regular cars that I like, like Corvairs and stuff like that. Mostly cars that I had as a kid, or missed when I was a kid.
Do you feel like “The Tonight Show” is in capable hands?
Oh, yeah. Every time somebody new comes along, people make a big deal out of it, but you need to change with the times. I’m not a big social media guy, and that’s what you have to be nowadays, and Jimmy’s good with all that stuff and putting on the viral videos. So you need to change with the times — I enjoyed it during my time, and it was the best job I ever had. It was fantastic. But you do have to know when to step aside.