He dominated late-night television ratings for close to three decades. The man is an Emmy-Award winner, inductee to the Television Hall of Fame, boasts a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, owns more vehicles than anybody you know, and was (oddly) a witness for defendant Michael Jackson when he was on trial in 2005. (No, seriously!)
He is…The one and only Mr. Jay Leno! Jay recently phoned CleveRock’s hotline in advance of his February 2 at Playhouse Square!
Anyone that keeps up with celebrity news is aware of how remarkable it is that Leno’s performance was not rescheduled or canceled after he suffered second-degree burns on his face in November 2022 while working on one of his prized vintage cars.
Leno shared some wonderful news about his speedy recovery from the accident:
“Everything is fine! People get burned in accidents all the time… people that have real jobs. I don’t want to be some whiney celebrity complaining. It was a face full of gasoline and it ignited. I basically got a new face,” he revealed. “I don’t know if you saw the pictures in People Magazine. They did a great job. The Burn Center was pretty unbelievable.”
Leno, one of the more humble celebrities this writer has interviewed in nearly two decades of work, didn’t treat his injuries the way a typical megastar would. His approach is more on par with an injury victim with a deficiency in PTO and poor health insurance.
“I only missed two days of work, really. I was back 10 days after the accident. It was fine. I mean, that’s what people do that have real jobs. You’ve gotta go back to work,” he said. “I mean, if I’d been seriously disfigured or something then I probably wouldn’t have gone back to work. But they fixed everything. It’s better than a broken leg so I’m not hobbling around.”
Leno, no stranger to working on his massive collections of 204 cars and 68 motorcycles, was able to remain calm and rely on his safety knowledge to minimize his injuries.
“I was lucky. I knew to close my eyes and hold my breath. The big mistake that people make sometimes with fire is they get panicky and they start breathing hard and inhale and they end up scorching their lungs,” he said. “The guy that saved me, when he pulled me close to his chest when my face is on fire… I think he scorched his lungs a little bit.
Leno is currently the host of the Emmy-Award-winning show, Jay Leno’s Garage, and he tells us that his recent accident will not deter him from continuing that program whatsoever. Leno was asked the difficult question of if he could pick a favorite out of his 272 rides. Not surprisingly, this proved impossible.
“I don’t really have a favorite car. I like them all. They are all different,” he answered. “Whenever you’re into something, you always want to know what came before that and then what came before that, you know? I drive a car that is 103 years old! Anything that rolls, explodes, or makes noise is what I like.”
Leno was the master of the monologue in his days on Tonight Show. His canny for making light of current events is second to none (past or present). After turning the reins over to current Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon in 2014, Leno has spent increasingly more time returning to his stand-up comedy roots. His current set, however, is dissimilar to the types of his jokes he would perform nightly on his former show.
“I don’t do a lot of current events. Do you know what it is now? People wait for the punch line to decide what side of the joke they are on. I kind of use Rodney Dangerfield’s model. He was a good friend of mine. I knew Rodney for 40 years. I have no idea if Rodney was a Republican or Democrat or how he voted. It was just about the jokes,” Leno said. “It’s just jokes. It’s just stories. It’s not about what Biden did today or Trump did today. I’ll start with a joke about President Biden and people are like, ‘Yeah? Is it pro or con?’ They wait for the punchline before they decide to laugh or not.”
When asked if it’s more difficult to come up with new jokes that do not involve current events after focusing almost solely on that type of material for so many years, Leno claims it wasn’t that tough of a transition. He shares an opinion with another comedy legend on the best strategy for writing for a broad audience.
“Jerry Seinfeld and I had this discussion because we do shows that work with every conceivable kind of audience. Sometimes it’s a benefit for the boys and girls club; sometimes it’s the regular hard ticket; sometimes you are in the Midwest at a Christian School. You need something that works under all circumstances,” Leno said. “I watch a lot of shows now and I realize, ‘OK, he’s only appealing to this particular crowd.’ Half the crowd is laughing; half the crowd is annoyed; no matter what side you are on. I want to find the jokes that cross all lines. That’s really the key. It’s tricky, but that’s what makes it work. If a joke doesn’t work in a situation, I get rid of it. I see a lot of comics that continue to do the same thing over and over again even though the last time it worked was 40 years ago because it’s no longer relevant.”
“Sometimes it’s nice to get away and go to a comedy show for an evening to forget your problems and have a few laughs. That’s really what I’m trying to do,” he continued. “People seem to like that. That’s not to say that I won’t do current events at some point again. It’s just that there are so many issues that I really think that people don’t want to hear about.”
This writer once saw another former late-night show host (who shan’t be named) do stand-up at a Northeast Ohio venue. Expecting a similar level of class that was displayed on his television program, it was disappointing that the show was unnecessarily crass. (Pure filth, one might argue!) Leno takes a different approach.
“Let’s put it this way: Anything you can do on TV is fine. I go to some comedy shows and you literally have to be a gynecologist to follow the act. It’s like ‘Where is that? I’ve never heard of that.”’ I find a lot of that comedy is, to me, not my audience” he said. “I find that my audience is a cross-section, and, obviously I’m older now, so sometimes you have to watch your age group. There is nothing creepier than watching a 60 or 70-year-old talking about hitting on a girl. It’s like, ‘Ew. I don’t want to hear about that.’ You need to play your age.“
As for the present day, in addition to hosting Jay Leno’s Garage, the TV legend is also co-host of a gameshow titled You Bet Your Life with former The Tonight Show bandleader, Kevin Eubanks.
“I sold the show under the premise of no politics. It’s just having fun. It worked tremendously well. It just got renewed for a third season,” he said. “It’s kind of like the Jay Walking segments that we used to do on The Tonight Show. It’s a comedy show with a game element attached to it. You talk to the contestants and learn what quirks they have or unusual things they like to do. Then, you ask a few questions so they can win some money. They don’t leave with a lot of money. It’s what I call “month-changing money.” It’s not life-changing money. The most you can win is five grand or maybe $6,500 if you get the secret word and bonus. That’s enough money to change your month. It’s not like it’s 100 grand. It’s just fun.”
As for his reunion with Eubanks?
“I love Kevin. The fun thing about our relationship is that it just happened organically. He was the guitar player on The Tonight Show and I did something and he interrupted and he said, ‘Jay! That’s not that funny!’ And I l was like, ‘Kev, I’m working here. What are you doing?’ People liked that,” Leno said. “It was really funny and I was like, ‘Do more of that. People like that.’ It really worked out great. People love Kevin. He’s smart; he’s really bright. I really enjoy having him. He really makes it work.”
The late-night television model has changed over the past decade or so. Out are long-time hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman; enter Jimmy Fallon and Steven Colbert. The focus now is on shorter monologues, more quirky moments with guests, the quest for viral videos, and more commercial time than any viewer should have to endure.
“You have to adapt to the times. That’s pretty much the era we live in now. The biggest problem with late-night TV has nothing to do with the hosts. Colbert is brilliant, Fallon makes me laugh, and Jimmy Kimmel is great. They all write really good jokes,” he says, coming to the defense of the less-funny generation of hosts that have taken over. “There are so many commercials I think Letterman and I were probably the last time that you weren’t competing against the Godfather Trilogy and all five Rocky movies at once. You have streaming now. When you watch any late-night television show…The number of commercials…Oh my god! It’s so overwhelming. You watch five minutes of the show, then a four-and-a-half-minute commercial break, then six or seven-minute commercial breaks. Having access to Amazon Prime and Netflix and all of these other shows that are commercial-free; it’s tough to watch regular network television. It’s a real challenge. That’s really the issue.”
The changes would have applied to Leno’s The Tonight Show if he was still hosting, too, making it easier for him to enjoy his current projects.
“I don’t miss it because I really enjoyed making fun of both sides. The fun part was doing it like the news. If you do the news, you do it whether it goes in your favor or not,” Leno said. “If my candidate does something wrong, I’m not going to not do the joke. I got hate mail from both sides equally. That’s when you know you’re doing the job right because people on both sides are pissed off. Now, you have to give your opinion, you have to say which candidate you like, you have to play favorites, it’s just a bit different, you know?”