I did a long interview with Jay Leno for my cover story on him last week. As usual, a lot of it ended up covering material and going in directions that I just didn’t have a place for in the article. But I hate transcribing interviews for nothing, so you get to read it here! What follows is not the whole interview, but some selections.
I’ll be honest: I’m much more of a Letterman and Conan guy than a Jay Leno guy. That said, I have to admire his sheer determination in his work, and there’s something appealing to me about his devotion to the idea of old-fashioned, something-for-everyone entertainment—even if it’s entirely at odds with my own taste. So let’s start with that:
When Conan and Letterman went from 12:30 to 11:30, people asked whether their comedy would translate. Is there a difference between 11:30 and 10:00 comedy?
I don’t think so. I’ve always been a big-tent guy. I’ve always tried to get everybody in. … The idea was just to have jokes that appealed to everybody, some political jokes, some silly jokes, just so everybody got a little bit of something. Sometimes you get beat up about that. When I was on Letterman in the ’80s I was, quote, edgy, then I got the Tonight Show and I wasn’t edgy. There is a difference between doing a show every six weeks and doing it every day. [sarcastic emphasis] And when you get a little more successful and older, suddenly being edgy seems a little odd. You tend to become mainstream just by the very nature of it.
I’ve always worked clean anyway. I don’t have anything against people who work blue, I just find it a little more of a challenge, more of a big-tent thing… to me comedy should be for everybody. That’s why people love PG comedies more than R comedies.
Do you think it was unfair of people to say you toned down your humor for The Tonight Show—became less edgy, less political?
Well, I think “angry” is really the word. You can’t be angry every night. You can only be what you are. When you’re struggling and you’re coming up and you’re getting kicked in the head every day, being angry is a lot of fun, and it works for you. When you become middle-aged—I was 42 when I got the Tonight Show—and you become reasonably wealthy and successful, the anger doesn’t quite play quite as well.
I remember a joke you told about Bush, a little while after 9/11: you referred to him on the show, and then you added, “He’s smart now!” The audience seemed relieved to be able to laugh at that.
Yeah. [Laughs.] The Bush jokes! When times are bad, you do silly jokes. When times are silly, you do serious jokes. I remember about a month or two after Sept. 11 saying, “You know if you don’t laugh at that, it means the terrorists have won.” And it got [claps] applause and laughter far beyond what the joke warranted, because people realized, “OK, people are starting to use—OK.” I mean they got it, and you can go back to joking.
The term you use for your own humor is “populist.” So many of your bits, though, are like Jaywalking, where it’s about how ignorant people are. Yet people don’t seem to feel, “Oh, Jay Leno thinks he’s smarter than me.”
The key to Jaywalking is A, you never pick on anybody that–it’s always between the ages of 18 and about 38. You don’t go after a homeless guy. Sometimes after about 30 seconds you realize, Oh, this person is a schizophrenic or they have some mental problem. You try to get people who are, “Are you a college graduate?’” “Yes, I am.” You try to get those who have had every advantage in life, and why don’t they know this? … You always ask them if it’s OK to ask some questions for TV. They’ll know the bit. They’ll say. “Oh, yeah, those morons.” So you say, “Who was the first President of the United States?” “Abraham Lincoln.” “And when was he President?” “1941.” “OK, thank you very much.”
The funny thing is, Jaywalking doesn’t work on [young kids]. Up until about 9th grade, people remember everything. There’s something that happens between about 18 and 38 years old.
In retrospect, how did it make you feel when NBC wanted to go with Conan?
Welcome to show business! [Laughs] People say, “Why do you do 160 [standup] gigs a year?” I’m a comedian first. That’s what I do. If someone wants to offer me a job in television, that’s a second job, and that’s very nice. I have friends who have TV shows, who when the show gets canceled, not only don’t have a TV show, they don’t have a life. They don’t have the restaurant they went to, the people they went out with, whatever they had. It’s a terrible analogy, but I always tell young comedians, never fall in love with a hooker. It’ll break your heart, it’ll be horrible. Enjoy television, it’s wonderful, use it, but don’t put all your faith in it. That’s why I still have the same friends as in high school, I’m still married to the same woman, I still drive the same car.
Who did you love to watch on TV when you were a kid?
I used to love The Ed Sullivan Show. I loved when Ed would talk and the curtain would move behind him. You’d try to see what was happening behind the scenes. I loved Jack Benny, he was my hero, Johnny Carson, certainly. I liked comedians that looked like regular guys. I was not a big fan of Milton Berle, the put on a dress, throw a pie school of comedy. I liked people who looked like normal people and used to say witty things. As a child, for whatever reason, I used to like to watch Oscar Levant. … I loved people who were wordsmiths. To me, heavyset is a funnier word than fat.
Do you expect NBC to be as patient with your new show as they were with Tonight in the early ’90s?
Whatever you want, babe. Not my problem. You know what, from when I moved in here, in my office, I have never had a personal item. Not a picture, nothing. Because I always assume that, when they throw you out of here, you can leave the same day.
I’ve always been able to make money for the people I work for. [He repeats a story, which he's often told before, about when he guest-hosted Tonight in the 1980s. The managers of the other guest hosts got together to demand $25,000 a show for their clients. Leno told them he was going to ask for scale.] Well, who got the job? People say, “How did you get to be guest host?” Because I can guest host for 10 years for the price of one shot of your client. If you’re any good, the money comes later.
Chuck Yaeger was not supposed to break the sound barrier. That was supposed to go to another pilot who went to the Air Force and demanded $10,000 to break the sound barrier. Chuck said ‘I’ll do it for $212 a month,’ which was what he was paid. “Chuck, you’re the guy!”
You often say you’re not that concerned with the business end of your show—that you’d never want to be a producer or a manager or worry about numbers. But you also seem to have a pretty good sense of the business, the importance of getting in good with the affiliates, etc. Where does that come from?
My dad was a salesman. He serviced the customers. That’s what he did. … He worked for Prudential insurance, and when he started out, he asked, What’s the toughest route? And they said, “Harlem. Black people don’t buy insurance.” So my father, he was a very open guy, he said, “Well, why would a black family not want insurance?” He went door-to-door selling policies, he was very successful.
[Leno's father died while Leno was host of The Tonight Show.] I got a letter from a lady who was in her 70s. And she said when she was a little girl, there was a man named Angelo Leno who would come around and collect these insurance policies. And he wad the only white person who ever had dinner in their house. … And it really made me cry, and it was such a touching moment for me, and I realized, that’s what it is: You try to reach every possible person.