Radio & TV Talk

The TV/Radio blog features behind-the-scenes coverage of Atlanta’s stations, along with the hottest new TV shows.

Interview: Jay Leno (Cobb Energy, February 18) on partisanship, visiting 'The Tonight Show,' mudding

This was posted on Tuesday, February 14, 2017 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog, subscriber side

Jay Leno is the anti-Lewis Black. Nothing on the surface gets him overly worked up. Affability is his middle name.

He's content to be on stage 210 times a year and regale crowds with jokes. When he's not working on his 160 cars and 130 motorcycles, stand-up remains his sustenance three years removed from his hosting gig on NBC's "The Tonight Show."

And even in this Donald Trump-infused environment, you won't get a feel for what his real political views are this Saturday in his first appearance at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre since 2014. (Buy tickets here.) He's old school that way and he readily admits it.

"I would always make fun of Democrats and Republicans equally," Leno said in a phone interview Tuesday. "If I go see a singer, I don't want to hear a political speech. It's just the way I look at it."

Even with Republicans in control of much of the federal government, he said there are ways to tweak both sides. "It's like using a scalpel instead of a hammer," he said.

Going back to the 1960s, he recalls seeing a comic Mort Sahl who was so heavily invested in John F. Kennedy assassination theories, that's what he discussed one day instead of creating comedy. Leno stuck around to the end but said much of the audience was gone by the time it was over.

His humor-trumps-partisanship philosophy is a reason Leno won the ratings race 20 out of the 22 years he was on air as host of  "The Tonight Show."

Leno's successor Jimmy Fallon fills the 2017 Everyman role, though his focus is less on stand-up jokes and more on viral video content featuring goofy games. As a result, they get along well and a few times a year, when Leno visits New York City, Fallon gives him five minutes of his monologue time to do his thing.

"I never assume anyone wants to see me," Leno said, though the Fallon crowds always cheer loudly when he appears. "I'm a huge believer in low self esteem."

He harbors no nostalgic feelings when he returns. "It's a different show in a different city," he said. "And it was never my show to begin with. I'm 66. I know so many guys my age doing the same material. They're bitter and angry. You got to change it up. You can't pretend you're the host. Jimmy's the host."

The only thing he misses is the ability to hear the news that day and come up with a joke that can be heard by millions a few hours later. He said he had one about people protesting shops over Trump merchandise. "I thought this was tailor made for the women's march. You have civil disobedience and shopping. Fantastic! Shopping while protesting. Of course. women will say that's incredibly sexist. It's just a silly joke."

CNBC has aired two seasons of "Jay Leno's Garage" and is producing a third. He finds working in his garage the ultimate therapy: "When you work with your hands, your mind relaxes. The heart is happy when the hands and head are working together."

While in Atlanta this Saturday, he will be shooting a segment for his CNBC show on "mudding," which means riding around in motorcyles in the mud an hour from Hartsfield-Jackson. He is not at all fearful. "It's car stuff," he said. "It's fun."

For him, "anything that rolls and explodes and makes noise is great."

He is also not hung up on fame. He doesn't thirst for the best seat at Spago. And nowadays, he's happy to hear from fans in person because they usually like to talk about cars and motorcycles with him instead of some celebrity he doesn't really care about.

While he won't be driving in Atlanta, he has spent plenty of time in Los Angeles traffic. The highlight for him "is the anonymity of it. You're by yourself. I can talk to myself. I can talk out loud and practice things. I can't do that the house. I'm more self conscious around my wife."

Leno thinks the state of stand-up comedy is as healthy as ever. Even in this day of social media, he said, people still need to gather together. And in general, stand-up comedy is a cheaper night than a music concert.

He happens to be an easy comic to deal with from a concert venue point of view. He said his rider does not involve a specific brand of mineral water or M&Ms with the brown ones removed. Food isn't even necessary. He said he usually grabs fast food after a concert.

All he needs, he said, is a decent sound system. And the only reason he has that requirement is because a promoter one time provided him with no sound system at all at a converted church in his early days as a comic. "I was yelling my jokes until I was hoarse!" he said.


Jay Leno

8 p.m. Saturday, February 18


Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre

2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta

Buy tickets here

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.