Jay Leno was interviewed by TelevisionWeek Editor Alex Ben Block on the occasion of being named TVWeek’s Entertainer of the Year. An edited version of the interview follows:
TelevisionWeek: `The Tonight Show’ has a long history. How do you view it?
Jay Leno: This is like the America’s Cup [yacht race]. You try not to screw it up for the next guy.
TVWeek: Do you feel an obligation to move the franchise forward in some way?
Mr. Leno: There’s all kinds of ways to move it forward. There is keeping it the No. 1 [late-night] show. That’s probably the most important thing. And then if you can break a little bit of new ground, that’s OK too. But the idea is that the show has sort of turned into more comedy and half talk show. We wind up doing 10- to 11-minute monologues. And then sometimes you have a first comedy piece. And then you also have a main comedy piece. OK, now it’s midnight and you start the talk part. I can remember [in] the early days we’d do as many as four guests a night. Now we do three and sometimes just two.
TVWeek: Wasn’t a conscious decision made in the mid-’90s to be more comedy/variety and less talk?
Mr. Leno: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s even a variety show as much as a comedy show. I think the key to `The Tonight Show’ is you try to get as many jokes in there as possible. I can remember the early days when I first took over and there was a lot of apprehension and animosity and you’d run into people and they’d go, `I don’t really care for you but I like some of your jokes.’ And I go, `OK, so you like the product. So let’s improve the product.’ And that’s kind of the way I look at it.
There’s a diminishing return when you do these shows because everyone starts off with a monologue, and a monologue is pretty hard to do. And then you start off with a monologue and within a few months it turns into opening jokes. And then it turns into opening remarks. And then pretty much you’re off the air. I mean everybody that starts one of these is great for the first week or so. For two weeks they’ve got the jokes, they’ve got everything they’ve done in their career up to that point. And then you’re out of stuff and you’ve got to write all the time. That’s really what it is. It’s just a matter of people want jokes.
I think what `The Tonight Show’ has evolved into is a funny version of the 11 o’clock news. I mean, you’ve just watched the 11 o’clock news and then hopefully you see us do a funny version of the news you just saw. Using the same clips but with funny tags or whatever it might be. It’s so funny-you can do all these Bush and Kerry jokes and some of them are very clever. And then I did a joke last week about this cat on an airplane, and the plane had to turn around and land. As an off-remark I said that the cat may be a member of al kitty. It’s the stupidest line, yet more people at the gas station and work love that al kitty joke. And that was the silliest joke.
TVWeek: You are among the funniest people of all time, but you do it without being sexist, racist or making drug references.
Mr. Leno: Well, yeah, it’s a conscious effort that way. I remember when Bill Cosby always used to say, `Never create anything bigger than your act.’ … For example, I think Sam Kinison was a hilarious comedian. But it got to the point where he did this stuff with necrophilia, and he would get on stage and start screaming and pretty soon the audience is screaming back. And it’s like how do you tell a joke after that? It got to be like a rock concert. The great trick is to keep the water just below a roaring boil because once it boils, then your pot’s going to be empty pretty soon. And the idea is just try to keep the interest. You try to keep it moving. You try to keep it fun and you never try to create anything bigger than what you are.
TVWeek: How has comedy changed since you started doing the show? In the old days, every comic dreamed of being on `The Tonight Show.’ Now they all seem to want to do a sitcom.
Mr. Leno: That’s what I call the `Seinfeld Effect.’ All these comics think they’re Jerry Seinfeld. They think that if they do three or four `Tonight Shows,’ they’ll get a series. But Jerry must have done the `Tonight Show’ 40, 50, 60 times. Jerry did hundreds of talk shows before he got his sitcom because he was, is, and still remains a stand-up comedian.
The hardest thing for us is we’ll put a new comic on and he or she will kill. I’ll say get another show ready. OK, months go by. Months. They have a second shot and by that time you’re reintroducing them to the audience all over again. The last guy I saw really pick up momentum from any of the talk shows-be it me, Letterman, whatever-was Steven Wright. Johnny Carson had him on on a Monday, and he did so well they asked him back on Wednesday, or something like that. It was a very short period of time. He came back in a couple of days. He came back again, and then he came back again. And literally, he became sort of an overnight sensation. All in the course of a month or two. Because he had these three or four appearances. But the trouble with a lot of comics is they only have one really good shot and then they think that’s gonna get them the TV deal. They’re not really happy with the art of being a stand-up comedian.
TVWeek: They call you the hardest-working man in comedy. What is your work schedule? How do you keep it fresh?
Mr. Leno: Well, I do a lot of personal appearances. I just got back from Milwaukee last night. I’ve used this example before, but I kind of have two sets of writers. There are the guys that work during the day and the guys that work during the night. The interesting thing about doing these shows is people don’t resent how much money you make if you’re at least working as hard as they are. I try to be the first one in. I try to get in at 8 or 8:15 a.m., and we usually finish up, well, the show finishes at 5:30, 6 p.m. Then we go out and do a walk-around until maybe 8:30 p.m. Or we might shoot a comedy piece. Then I tend to do the monologue from 10:30 p.m. to 1 or maybe 2 a.m. And that schedule works pretty good.
I remember another competing talk show came on and I was watching the news and I saw the host at a [Los Angeles] Laker [basketball] game. And I went, `Gotcha. I know you will not have a monologue tomorrow.’ And he didn’t. He had a few jokes, but he didn’t have a monologue. Because you can’t go out on a school night. It can’t be done. This job requires a lot of effort. It’s not that it’s hard. It’s just that it’s time-consuming.
TVWeek: You mean you stay up working until 2 a.m. and then are in the office before 9 a.m.?
Mr. Leno: Yes. I try to have half the monologue done the night before. At least half.
TVWeek: So you only sleep four hours?
Mr. Leno: Yes. Four hours is about my maximum. I’m not a big sleeper, so it’s not a lot of heavy lifting. It’s not like it’s hard work. But that’s about right for me-about four or four-and-a-half. If I go to bed by three, I’m up by 7:30 or a quarter to eight. Then I’m in the office by 8:15.
TVWeek: You do a lot of political comedy but I don’t know much about your politics. I’ve heard you criticized by both the political left and right.
Mr. Leno: I know, it’s hilarious, isn’t it? It’s really very funny. I guess there should be a certain point of pride in that. It’s just that they think you are the last thing they heard. So from 2000 until Arnold Schwarzenegger announced [his candidacy for California governor] on our show, apparently I was a Democrat. The day Arnold announced on the show, well, it was, `Leno and his right-wing buddies.’ So then I became somehow a Republican. It is very funny. You know, people hear what they want to hear.
There was an article in one of the newspapers recently, sort of a left-wing newspaper, that said I was apparently campaigning for Schwarzenegger. I’ve never campaigned for a candidate in my life. I’ve never endorsed a candidate in my life. I’ve never given money to a political candidate. I mean, with all the suffering and things in the world, to give money to these people is so ridiculous. I mean, all the letters you get saying, `I need a kid
ney’ or something, or, `My uncle had an accident.’ So to send $1,000 to a political candidate instead of those people makes no sense to me at all. I think it’s safe to say when I think I’m a Democrat they do something stupid, and when I think I’m a Republican they do something greedy.
TVWeek: Do you acknowledge being a Democrat or Republican?
Mr. Leno: Not really. I tend to vote for the person. My wife is one of the people in the feminist majority and she’s an avowed liberal Democrat. That’s fine with me. We agree to disagree on a lot of things.
TVWeek: How do you feel about the celebration of celebrities in our culture?
Mr. Leno: To quote an old adage, never fall in love with a hooker. That’s kind of the way I am about showbiz. I enjoy being around it. I enjoy observing it. I don’t try to get too immersed in it. I’m not a big party guy. I don’t hang out at this particular place or that. I don’t drink or smoke. I don’t do drugs. But I enjoy watching it. I enjoy observing it. The real trick I think is to lead a normal life and make show business money. Oh man, then you can have the greatest life in the world. But if you try to be in show business and live a show business life, then it’s just over.
It’s great fun to me to hang out with the same guys I hung out with in high school and taunt them unmercifully when people recognize me. It’s fun being the class show-off. You just try not to take it too seriously. My attitude is, why would an extremely attractive woman find me more attractive at 54 than I was at 24? If I couldn’t get this woman at 24, what possible logic in my mind would make me think she’d be attracted to me at 54? You just can’t take it too seriously. The trick to life is being able to know paradise before you’re thrown out of it. I see so many people in show business that just don’t get it. It’s like, what are you doing? Did you really think the cocktail waitress is in love with you? You really believe that? `Oh yes, she really loves me.’ Look in the mirror. We all fantasize. But we can all look around and be realistic.
TVWeek: I read that you are of Scottish and Italian ancestry.
Mr. Leno: Yes, my mother’s from Scotland. When I made it, I told my dad I was going to buy him a Cadillac. So I took my dad up to the Cadillac store. And of course my dad being an Italian, we ordered the white Cadillac with the red velour upholstery. I think I remember the salesman saying, `You want the regular interior or the one with d’elegance?’ So my father said, `We’ll get the interior d’elegance.’ So we drive this home, and of course my mother is mortified. I remember they would drive along-and this is absolutely true-if they pulled up to a light and my mother looked over and there were people looking at the car she’d motion for them to roll down the window and she’d say, `We’re not really Cadillac people. Our son got us this. We’re not Cadillac people.’ She felt obligated to tell everyone that. But my dad would pull up and say, `My boy got us this Cadillac. … We didn’t earn this. Our son got it.’ My mother was so embarrassed to ride in this flashy Cadillac she would scrunch down in the seat and sit below the window. And this is before cellphones. People would say, `I saw your father going by and he looked like he was yelling at somebody.’ My mom was in the car. She just didn’t want to be seen in this Cadillac. It’s just stupid. It doesn’t make any sense. But it’s hilarious.
TVWeek: I have heard about your car collection. How many do you have?
Mr. Leno: About 80. Some are extremely valuable and some are just dopey old cars I’ve always had. I just can’t bring myself to get rid of everything. I’m still driving the same car my wife and I dated in.
TVWeek: It’s a collection thing?
Mr. Leno: It’s the more-money-than-brains club. If you’re making money and buying cars, you’re doing something wrong.
TVWeek: What is your view these days on the competition with David Letterman?
Mr. Leno: God bless him. It’s still a story 14 years later. That’s fine. I think it’s great everybody’s rich, everybody’s happy, everybody’s successful. What’s the problem? It’s fine. I think the idea that both shows go against each other makes both shows better. If only one show’s on, how many weeks a year would that show be off? I think it works out better for the public. Competition breeds better shows.
TVWeek: You are actually doing more original shows now than when you started. Why?
Mr. Leno: Yes, that is probably true. I don’t have any pretensions about this. I think people watch when it’s new and they don’t watch when it’s a rerun. If you’re gone for a while, people go away. It’s as simple as that. You try to deliver. You just can’t take anything for granted. You try to deliver a quality product as often as you can. People get into a viewing habit. In the old days when there were only three channels on, well, OK, it was easier. Now there are hundreds of things to watch. I mean, like me, I’m [watching] Speed Channel all day, watching lug nuts. Whatever you’re into, you can watch all day long. People realize, `Oh well, let’s see “The Tonight Show” and see what Jay has to say about this funny story today.’ If you’re not there, then they’ll go somewhere else. Will Rogers probably said it best: You’re only as good as your last joke. I think that’s really true. You try to build up good will but you build up good will by constantly coming up with new products.
TVWeek: Johnny Carson took a lot more vacations than you.
Mr. Leno: That was a different time, and Johnny was the master. He could do it. Unfortunately, nobody on TV since then has been as good as Johnny was. So we have to work a little harder.
TVWeek: Steve Allen and Jack Paar were on for a short period compared with you and Johnny Carson. Do you appreciate your success? Are you enjoying the ride?
Mr. Leno: I’m comfortable being in a pattern like this. I enjoy the routine. I enjoy the work. You know, when I was a kid I was dyslexic. I guess I still am. And my mother would always say to me, `You’re going to have to work a little harder than the other kids to get the same thing.’ And that’s always been my motto in life.
I don’t think I’m better than anybody else. Or funnier than anybody else. I really don’t. I just think that I’ll wait for the other person to get tired or fall by the wayside. I can remember when they would hold auditions at the Improv. They would say, `OK, get there at noon.’ And the club didn’t open till 9 o’clock at night. And you’d get in line. And I’d get there at noon. There might be five or six people in front of me, and usually two or three of them would go, `This sucks, I’m leaving.’ Now I move up. And that’s sort of always been the way I’ve conducted myself. You like to think you have some talent. But I think that if you’re just willing to work a little harder than the other guy, you can do this. It’s like what I say when I hear that other talk show hosts are going to events on a weeknight. I say, `OK, I’m here writing jokes.’ I come from a generation that was drilled with the idea that, `While you kids are at recess, Russian kids are doing math.’ And I used to believe all that stuff.
TVWeek: Were you a good student?
Mr. Leno: I was a horrible student. I’ll never forget the time my mother was called to school. We met with a guidance counselor. He said to my mother-I was like 16-he said, `Have you thought of taking Jay out of school?’ And my mother said, `No, it never occurred to us.’ And he said, `I know he works at McDonald’s, and they like him a lot down there. He works hard.’ And I remember he said to my mother, `Education’s not for everyone.’ And my mother said, `What kind of talk is that?’ I still see him. And I always tease [him] about that.
TVWeek: When young people ask advice, how do you relate to them?
Mr. Leno: I did finish school. I did finish college because my parents wanted me to. And that was my gift to my parents. `Here’s my college degree. Please enjoy it.’ My mother always came from the just-so-you’ll-have-something-to-fall-back-on school. Whenever I meet kids like that, I always try to tell them in the real world being
odd or different or unusual has huge penalties. Only in show business does it pay dividends. I remember that scene in `The Graduate’ when Dustin Hoffman walks into the locker room and all those blond guys are standing at the sink shaving. And they all look exactly the same. He looks different from all of them. And that was the idea. That’s what I always tell these kids. `If you’re a little weird, if you’re a little different, if you’re a little unusual, good! You will stand out and that will move you forward. That will make you different from all the other insurance salesmen or whatever it is you are.’ I see those kids all the time. I get letters from them, especially kids who are dyslexic, because people kind of know that about me. I’ll call them up and talk to them a little bit and hopefully it helps.
TVWeek: There are vast differences in our culture today between the conservative, traditional point of view and the more progressive, liberal point of view. Where do you fall in those groups?
Mr. Leno: Probably right down the center. … I find today’s generations far easier. I’m 54 and these kids aren’t burning down the Bank of America. I think they’re a lot easier generation to talk to than ours was.
TVWeek: Howard Stern has been critical of you recently. Does it bother you?
Mr. Leno: No, it’s big-time wrestling. That’s fine. You know, it’s hilarious to me. I had the [radio on in the] car and I turned to Howard. He was just praising me, saying what a great guy I was. Then I heard it was a rerun from a year ago. He’s just mad that one of his guys came to work for me.
TVWeek: What is the source of your comedy? Does it come from new places these days?
Mr. Leno: I don’t think it’s changed at all. The interesting thing about comedy is if I show you a silent movie drama from 1921, it’s almost unwatchable. It just seems long and drawn-out. It takes so long to get to the point. However, if I show you a comedy from 1921, a [Charlie] Chaplin or a [Harold] Lloyd or a [Buster] Keaton, it’s just as funny now as it was then. So I don’t think comedy changes a whole lot.
TVWeek: There is a lot less physical comedy today.
Mr. Leno: Oh, I don’t know. Jim Carrey does a hell of a job. One area I see which I think is wonderful is that you have more of a minority involvement. You have female comedians. You have black comedians. You have Latino comics. And everybody speaks to their particular group. I mean, when I was a kid there was sort of one voice and that’s what you saw on `The Ed Sullivan Show.’ And anything a little different or a little unusual was just unavailable to me. I think it’s great. I mean Dave Chappelle could not have existed when we were kids. And now he can do whatever he wants. And he’s the funniest guy on TV. He’s hilarious. And it appeals to a particular market. If you want to watch it, you do. If you don’t, well, you don’t have to. But it’s there if you like it.
TVWeek: There are more choices and more niche comedy?
Mr. Leno: Yes, and I think that’s wonderful. I tend to be old school. My idea is, `Look, if you’re a comedian, you should be able to at least try to make every audience laugh.’ And that includes everything from entertaining the troops overseas to going to Vegas to doing corporate dates to doing rock concerts, whatever it might be. At least try it.
TVWeek: When you are not doing `The Tonight Show,’ I understand you are on the road a lot.
Mr. Leno: I do 150 [appearances] a year.
TVWeek: That is a lot of live shows to fit in. And you really don’t have to do it, do you?
Mr. Leno: I remember Seinfeld and I had a discussion. We were talking about this. And he said, `Why don’t you take a vacation?’ And we both said, OK, let’s take a vacation. And now we like it. Now what? Now we’re screwed. Because we liked it. There’s a great deal of satisfaction and joy from standing on stage and telling jokes, especially jokes that you’ve crafted over a long period of time, that you know work. I equate it to if you work in an office and somebody tells you a funny story. Well you can’t wait to tell that story to each person that passes by your desk. And by the end of the day you’ve really learned how to tell the story. And you’re telling it in a funny way and people are laughing, and that gives you a great deal of joy. Or maybe for some people it doesn’t. But for me it does. Like last night, I was in Minneapolis. It was great fun. I flew in and I did things, and people know who you are. They’re not throwing bottles or tomatoes. It’s not, `You suck! You stink!’ They’re anxious to see you. They’re generally surprised that it’s as funny as it is, and they all have a good time. I mean, it’s a wonderful feeling. I really enjoy it.