WASHINGTON — From “Headlines” to “Jaywalking,” his humor carried “The Tonight Show” for decades, earning the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize.
Now, comedy icon Jay Leno returns to the Kennedy Center for a stand-up show on Friday, March 17.
“Just telling a few jokes, trying to make a living,” Leno told WTOP. “I was a stand-up comedian before I got ‘The Tonight Show’ and I was a stand-up comedian during ‘The Tonight Show,’ and now that the show is over, that’s what I’m back to doing again. It’s fun! I actually like it. It’s actually really good.”
Instead of resting on his laurels, Leno still makes roughly 210 live comedy appearances each year.
“I did a joke in Boston the other day that almost got me killed,” Leno said, laughing. “I said, ‘A liar, a cheater, and a murderer walk into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Hey, [New England] Patriots in town!’ That almost got me killed! And I’m from Boston, but I’m sorry, it’s a funny joke! You’ve gotta do it.”
What can we expect from next week’s show at Kennedy Center?
“There’s a lot of humor, I think you’ll enjoy it,” Leno said. “A lot of funny stories, a lot of growing up stories. It’s a fairly clean show. I don’t work dirty. That doesn’t mean I’m making balloon animals, but I think you can talk about adult subjects in an adult way, so I hope people come by and check it out.”
It’ll mark his second time back to Kennedy Center since receiving the Mark Twain Prize in 2014.
“It was great fun,” Leno recalled of the honor. “Let’s be honest, people usually campaign for awards like Emmys. You put yourself up for it. Or even the Golden Globes, you buy a lovely gift for a member of the Foreign Press, [but] this is one of those things where they just call you up one day. You don’t really apply for it, or ask for it, or ask to even be considered for it, so that’s why it was really cool.”
The prestigious honor was a no-brainer for a fixture on the American comedy scene for the past four decades. In fact, this year marks the 40th anniversary of Leno’s first appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in 1977. Leno says he’ll never forget the advice Carson gave him.
“He pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re a good performer but you need a little stronger material,'” Leno said. “‘What you should do is write your jokes out and read them to people first. If a joke gets a laugh, then you know you’ve got a solid joke. Then add your performance to it. If you take a weak joke and really sell it hard, you’ll still get a laugh, but it won’t be a solid laugh, so you want a joke that works on two fronts. If it works if you say it in the dullest, most boring way possible, that means it’ll really work when you put a little body English into it and you sell it.’ And that was the best advice I ever got.”
In 1987, Leno was tapped as a regular substitute host for Carson whenever the legend took a day off.
“If you hosted one night and it didn’t go well, they’re really gonna watch that next show pretty carefully, and if that one doesn’t go well, then you’re not the ‘official’ guest host anymore,” Leno recalled. “You’re sort of on pins and needles the whole time. … You’re only as good as your last show.”
Turns out, he didn’t need to worry. Leno was such an impressive fill-in host that he bypassed David Letterman to become NBC’s pick to take over as the new host, assuming the mantle of Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. Thus, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” launched on May 25, 1992.
Within two years, Leno’s “Tonight Show” had already become the new late-night ratings leader. It continued to gain popularity with such memorable routines as “Headlines,” reading actual newspaper typos, and “Jaywalking,” quizzing folks on the street. Best of all were his lively celebrity interviews.
“What I would do is usually go into the dressing room before the show and talk to the guests,” Leno said. “When you talk to them before the show, they realize you’re not out for blood. I never put myself ahead of the interview. To me, you should always be second to the guest. The one thing it ensures you is that the guest will come back again, because they feel they’ve been treated fairly.”
He also preferred being up front about potentially controversial questions.
“If you have a guest who just got busted for cocaine, I will say, ‘Look, you’re in the papers for this. I have to ask you about it. You can choose not to answer, you can avoid the question if you want, but I’ve gotta ask you because that’s my job,’ and they go, ‘Oh, OK,'” Leno said. “Then they’re not sitting on pins and needles waiting for the question and not paying attention to what you’re saying to them.”
One such example was his 1995 interview with Hugh Grant.
“Hugh Grant showed up by himself, no publicist, no agent,” Leno said. “I went in smiling and said, ‘How ya doing?’ He said, ‘Fine, just let me have it,’ I said, ‘Look, I gotta ask you about this,’ and he said, ‘I know, don’t worry about it.’ He had a good sense of humor about it, he was very funny, it got us huge ratings and it was great. The celebrities that bring all their press people [aren’t nearly as fun].”
Of course, not every guest is so accommodating when it comes to controversial topics.
“There was some ice skating star who had been in the Olympics and was like America’s sweetheart, then 10 years later, she’s in Playboy magazine,” Leno said. “We get a call from Playboy [asking] would we like to [have her on], so we book her. I go into the dressing room to say hello and the agent said, ‘Mr. Leno, we are not discussing Playboy.’ I said, ‘Great, take your client and go home. I can get a comic here in 20 minutes. Thank you for coming, I’m sorry it didn’t work out.’ [They acquiesced], ‘OK, OK!’ I said, ‘Look, you called us! Your client is naked in Playboy magazine! We have to ask you about this.'”
Occasionally, Leno was surprised at the audience reaction to certain scandalous material.
“We Americans will accept anything except hypocrisy because we’re very forgiving,” Leno said. “I remember once Charlie Sheen was on and he said, ‘I just like hookers and cocaine,’ and the audience applauded! I go, ‘Why are you applauding?’ They’re applauding because he was so honest.”
Not only could Leno deftly handle the salacious, he could also host dignitaries like U.S. presidents.
“I was fortunate to have dinner with every single president since Gerald Ford,” Leno said. “The only time I was nervous was the first time I ever did a Correspondents Dinner with Reagan. I’m backstage in that green room and I see this general come in with all the medals and say, ‘Hey, you, come over here. This is my Commander in Chief. Don’t make fun of him. Don’t denigrate him.’ He’s poking me!”
Moments later, Leno got completely opposite instructions.
“George Shultz comes in, George has had a couple drinks, and goes, ‘Hey, Leno! When you get out there, nail Ronnie! Nail his a** to the wall!’ So now I don’t know what to do. It was a weird situation,” Leno said. “But I remember the opening joke was: ‘I want to congratulate Nancy Reagan for winning the Humanitarian of the Year Award. I’m glad she beat out that conniving little b***h Mother Teresa.'”
Beyond the presidents, which celebrity interviews made Leno pinch himself?
“Sean Connery was kinda cool, ’cause when you’re a kid, you’re 14 when ‘Goldfinger’ came out,” Leno said. “There’s an awful lot [of favorite interviews], they sort of escape me now. Just Johnny Carson, obviously, that was pretty impressive. All the big comics of my era: [Don] Rickles, [Bob] Newhart.”
Along the way, TV pundits loved pitting Leno’s NBC show as a rival to David Letterman on CBS.
“The first time I saw Letterman, I thought he was a brilliant wordsmith,” Leno said. “He could stand on stage and weave words in an interesting way. I remember one of his early bits was about working at a local TV station. ‘We here at KW-whatever are diametrically opposed to the use of orphans as yardage markers on public golf courses.’ The way he wove those elements together was really funny.”
Leno remembers first meeting Letterman, the beginning of a career-long interplay.
“I walked up to him and I introduced myself and said, ‘Aw man, that’s really great,’ and then he watched me perform and he said to me, ‘How can you be so loose up there? Just kind of loud and yelling at people. I could never,'” Leno said. “So I think he took from me maybe some performing ability and confidence, and I took from him [the need to] think about what you say a little more carefully, and weave those words and phrases together. So it was a sort of a mutual admiration.”
In addition to the ongoing Letterman rivalry, TV pundits again had a field day when Leno handed “The Tonight Show” over to Conan O’Brien in 2009, before resuming the hosting duties from 2010-2014.
“Conan is excellent,” Leno said. “What happened was basically just business. It really comes down to who you’re gonna make more money with. When they decided to switch off, my contract said I had five years left. Then over the course of that five years, Craig Ferguson went opposite of Conan on CBS, his thing was climbing, and NBC was like, ‘Hmm, are we making the right deal here?’ They tried to have both, and for a while they did and it worked fine, but when it fell apart, it fell apart terribly.”
Leno looks back at the switch as a business decision with unfortunate personal consequences.
“I don’t blame Conan, it’s just business,” Leno said. “I would read things constantly about how: ‘Jay Leno, you gave the show to Conan, you demanded it back and they had to give it to you!’ What do you mean they had to give it to me? This is TV, they don’t have to give you anything. It was all a business decision and that’s what it was. And it’s too bad. I think I lost a friend at the time and so did he.”
In 2014, Leno finally decided to hang it up for real. His last guests? Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks.
“Garth and Billy I’ve known since the first days of show business for me,” Leno said. “Billy and I go way back to the ’70s, and of course Garth in the early ’90s when he started, so that was really fun.”
What does he think of current “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon?
“He’s probably closer to Johnny [Carson] in demeanor than almost anybody,” Leno said. “He’s young, he’s good looking, he can play an instrument, he can move and dance. You never saw Letterman or I dance around. It just didn’t happen. I think Jimmy does a great job. He brings another dimension to the show. When we did the show, the focus was on the monologue; now the focus is on viral videos.”
Nowadays, you can catch Leno in cameo appearances on Fallon’s “Tonight Show” or streaming series like Netflix’s “Abstract: The Art of Design” and Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
“That was great fun,” Leno said. “Jerry’s one of my closest friends and one of my oldest friends.”
You can also catch him on “Jay Leno’s Garage” on CNBC, talking about his biggest hobby: cars.
“I grew up in a rural area of Massachusetts and we couldn’t go places virtually. We had to go places in reality. Cars were your only way out,” Leno said. “I lived in a little house. We had one bathroom and one phone in the kitchen, so if you tried to talk to a girl, your mother’s always within ten feet, ‘What are you saying? Who are you talking with? It’s nine at night!’ Whenever I called at nine at night, my father went, ‘Only hoodlums are up after nine! Only hoodlums talk on the phone at midnight!'”
Perhaps it’s only fitting that he was a fixture in so many American living rooms around midnight.
Looking back, does he miss hosting “The Tonight Show?”
“Yes and no,” Leno said. “When you’re 40 and you’re talking to the 26-year-old supermodel, it’s sexy. When you’re 66, you’re the creepy old guy, OK? At some point, I shouldn’t have to know all of Jay Z’s music, you know? I mean, when you’re my age and you’re pretending, ‘Tupac once told me,’ you just sound ridiculous. You have to know when to step aside. You can only live in the time that you live in.”
That said, he’s thankful to have hosted during such a comedy-rich time.
“I was lucky, I did it at a time when Clinton was horny and Bush was dumb,” Leno joked. “Clinton was the golden age of comedy. Most people don’t know anything about Syria. They don’t understand the Middle East, but by golly everybody knows somebody like Bill. There’s nothing funnier than, ‘I did not have sex with that woman.’ That’s the greatest line ever! I mean, what’s funnier than that?”
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