For nearly 50 years, Jay Leno has been committed to the art of comedy. With his first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1977, and his penchant for observational humor that is accessible to people of all ages, he quickly charmed his way into the hearts of many. After taking over “The Tonight Show” in 1992, he cemented himself as an icon of American television over the next 22 years. Now, after all that he’s done, Leno is still on the road and performing with his poignant style for highlighting the oddities of day-to-day life. Having the chance to sit down and talk with him, we dug into what keeps him touring, his past projects and his thoughts on a few things.
Weekly Alibi: So I guess the first thing we should talk about is you're back doing stand-up again.
Jay Leno: Well, I never stopped doing stand-up. I was on the road the whole time I was doing “The Tonight Show.”
I mean, comedy's not like music. Musicians can take five years off and sit in the basement and put an album out. With comedy, nobody leaves and comes back better. You just got to do it constantly. So while I was doing “The Tonight Show,” I was usually on the road every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And then I'd come back and do the show during the week.
I know you're very into classic cars, classic motorcycles. What kind of spawned that interest initially for you?
I grew up in a rural area in Massachusetts, so there are always broken snowmobiles and go karts and minibikes or something. Comedy … is fairly subjective. Some people love you, somebody thinks you suck. And they're both right because it's a matter of personal taste or personal opinion. When you have something that's broken and you fix it, well, no one can say it's not running. It puts things in perspective. I think the heart is healthiest when the hands and head work together. And at night I work with my head, talking, and during the day I work with my hands, working on cars and stuff.
I grew up watching Jaywalking on “The Tonight Show.” I was thinking about it and we've now got kind of a climate where people are a little bit more acclimated and engaged politically. Do you think that would change how it would run now?
That's like the funniest thing to me that people think ... it's like when I watch those commercials where they go, "People, today, are concerned about value." Yeah, like my parents just threw money in the street because they had no idea how not to. The answer is, we never tried to find crazy people. When we were out there, we only put on people, "What do you do, sir?" "Oh, I'm a stockbroker." "Oh, okay. Where'd you go to college?" "Oh ..." And then we'd ask them the questions. And we never talked to more than 20 people to get 9 or 10 that would really work. I mean, we never had any ringers. There was never anything like that.
For those who've never seen your stand-up, what should they kind of expect from the show?
I think I cover a myriad of topics and subjects and it's fairly clean. I don't use any four-letter words or anything. I think you can talk about adult topics. And there's a lot of stories about growing up and parents. Live shows aren’t as big of a thing anymore. Most people don't really communicate with other people anymore. It's why I don't do Netflix specials or anything like that. Because I just like to go to a place and do it in front of a live audience and do it in front of real people.
Do you have any advice for comedians kind of starting to get their feet firmly on the ground?
It’s hard to stand up there and be funny right off the bat. So I always tell people, whether it's your church or somewhere at your school, if you could emcee a show, and you get up there and you talk. You say something, and if it gets a laugh, then you say something else. If that gets a laugh, you say something else. As soon as you say something that doesn't get a laugh, "Okay, my next guest is our performer ..." This way you're not going up there primarily as a comedian. You're just going up there as an MC where the bar is much lower. And you can experiment and try out jokes. The real trick is to get as much stage time as you can. It's tough to get both those experiences under one roof. And it's the only profession where the affirmation of strangers is actually better. Because you don't want your friends showing up, "You suck." It's your friends at the front row and they're heckling you and it's awful.
You can hear Jay Leno's new material at The Showroom at Isleta Resort and Casino (11000 Broadway Blvd. SE) on Friday Sept. 13, at 8pm, with tickets ranging from $50 to $70.