Home Page About Me SpencerBrodsky.com
Interviews Galleries Quotes

 

 

An Interview With
Jay Leno
September 4, 2009

 

 

From the start, comedian Jay Leno had a strike against him: he was born dyslexic.  Watching him struggle, a high school counselor advisor once told Leno’s mother it might be better to take her son out of school, but her reaction was to remind him of something he already knew--to achieve the same thing as other children, he’d have to work twice as hard as they did. He’s been doing it ever since, earning the reputation as one of Hollywood’s hardest-working personalities. 

Leno started doing stand-up comedy routines in the late 1970’s to warm up audiences for big stars of the day, such as John Denver and Tom Jones.  He became a regular substitute for Johnny Carson in the late 80’s and in 1992 replaced him as the host of The Tonight Show.  During the following 16 years he became one of the most watched, celebrated comedians of the era.  I was inspired by his childhood struggle with dyslexia and how low self esteem pushed him to work harder to achieve his dream.  His new prime time comedy show premiered in September, 2009, a week after our interview.  We talked about his new show, his interest in green technology, about his life as a performer and the boundaries of political jokes.               

“Nobody minds someone with a different point of view, as long as they don’t try to force it on you.”

 

Spencer:

Governor Palin resigns. Governor Sanford goes to Argentina. And Bill Clinton rescues journalists from North Korea. The headlines keep reading: “Jay Leno is the Future of Television.” Why is this such big news?

Jay Leno:

This is more an economic decision than anything else. I mean TV is so expensive to do. And not as many people are watching it anymore, so the networks need to find cheaper programming that people will watch. The average episode costs $3 to $5 million dollars.

And when you had 25 to 30 million people watching a night, that wasn’t the problem. Now it’s only 5 to 6 million. People of your generation – they don’t really know Channel 4 or Channel 5. They know Channel 158. They know YouTube. They don’t know the networks. They’re more cable-oriented or HBO.

When I was a kid, they did variety television. Now, variety’s a bad word. To me, television is really about what’s happening right at this very second. The shows that do well, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, the Super Bowl, the Olympics – they happen right now. That’s really the future of television, watching something unfold as it’s happening. You know I used to do award shows, where you tape it in April, and the show would air in June. Nobody would know until June who won, because everybody kept the secret. Now people in the audience are twittering. There’s no information that you can really keep secret anymore.

So as soon as that information’s available, you put it right out there on the Internet. I mean a story breaks on the Internet before it breaks on the 6:00 news, because people have cameras, and they upload it. That’s where TV is now. The idea of taping a show in August and showing it in December, for a dramatic show, it doesn’t really matter much.

But people would rather watch something live, as it unfolds. Probably the classic example of that is the plane landing in the Hudson. I mean The Today Show had it as it was happening. And then Dateline, had the back story – the pilot, the passengers – no one was injured. And we did jokes about it that night. NBC did real good that night, because people just followed this story all the way through. That’s really what TV is now. If you have the winning quarterback of the Super Bowl on Monday, the day after the game, huge ratings. Have him on a week from Monday, you might as well have the losing quarterback. They’re not interested. They’ve moved on.

And that’s what TV is now. It happens right now. And it’s disposable, and we throw it away, and then you move on to the next thing. That’s the idea behind the new show. We just do a show every single day, and talk about what happened that day, and then move very quickly to the next day.

Spencer:

You said it will be like a variety show. Do you think you’re bringing the show back to the future, as TIME (magazine) said?

Jay Leno:

I don’t know if we’re back to the future. Things just go in cycles. There hasn’t been a show like this for a while, so it’s a bit of a novelty. Everything that’s on at 10:00 now is murder, like CSI. You see the guy’s head bashed in. He must be dead three weeks, because there are maggots in the wound. After five or six years of this, people are saying, “Is there anything else on?”

When times are serious, people like silly and funny. This movie, The Hangover – it’s a huge movie – wasn’t even gonna be released. I must have seen 15 Iraq War movies. Some were awful. Some were fantastic. Not one of them made a dime. I don’t want to go to the movies and see what I just saw on the news. The Iraqi family that got blown up by mistake. I don’t want to see this. We live in a serious time, so silly stuff seems to play well now.

Spencer:

Your new show has been in preparation for months. Jay, I noticed one or two gray hairs there.

Jay Leno:

Well, more grey hairs than that. Actually, I’ve had them since I was your age.

Spencer:

What’s it like getting ready for this new show?

Jay Leno:

Oh, it’s fun. I’m not a particularly high stress person. I’m not someone who worries about things. I’m just not. The times you get nervous are when you don’t know the situation. The first time I did the White House Correspondents Dinner, it was with President Reagan. I went to Washington. I’m at the White House, and some general guy goes, “Hey. You’re the comedian. Look, this is the President. You don’t make jokes about the President. You don’t make fun of the President of the United States.” “Yes sir.” I’m like, “Oh man.”

And then another guy comes over and says, “Oh, Ronnie loves a good joke. Reagan loves it. Make fun of his hair. Give him a couple of shots.” And I thought, “What do I do here?” I’m at the White House, and one side is saying be respectful, and the other side is saying just have fun. So I was really nervous, and I kind of threw out a few jokes in each direction.

And when I saw Reagan laugh at the jokes about him – “Whew.” I was okay, and I knew what the situation was. The new show is a case where I kind of know what the situation is. Here’s what I do. If people like it, great. If they don’t – well, I’m sorry. I don’t know how to do it any differently. This is what I do. This is what seems to have worked for 17 years on The Tonight Show. Let’s see if it works here. It’s a show – we don’t expect to win right out of the box. You’re not gonna beat CSI. Those are hugely expensive shows that are extremely popular.

Hopefully, we’ll win during the reruns. CSI is 22 weeks a year; we’re 46. We’re original every night, just about, except for a few weeks in the summer or maybe at Christmas. We’ll see what happens.

Spencer:

Very few entertainers have the self-confidence and strength of character to offer such incredible opportunities to young performers.

Jay Leno:

I find most people in show business are pretty nice. I mean for all the jerks you meet – and the jerks tend to be the ones that aren’t very good – I’ve always gotten way more work from other performers than I ever got from an agent or a manager.

I can’t play the club every night. The club will say to me, “Who’s funny?” “Oh. I saw this new kid. Whoever. Blah, blah, blah. You should hire him.” And then that person gets work because Jay Leno recommended him, as I got work because Steve Martin recommended me.

It’s really not a bad business at all. Most people are okay. You do meet the creepy people and the greedy people. But I think you meet those in any walk of life. Sure, a lot of people in show business are self-centered and competitive. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive.

I could count on one hand the number of times it has been extremely humiliating or disappointing. You know whenever parents are – “My kid wants to go in show business.”

The parents are all upset. I don’t know why. I mean you’re not polluting anything. You’re not making a bad product. You’re not injuring anybody. The worst you do is you’re not entertaining anyone. But I find it to be a pretty nice business.

At times you meet oddball characters, and people tend to drink too much or do too many drugs or live a crazy lifestyle. There’s that part of it. But if you can make show business money and lead a normal life – oh my God – it’s the greatest thing in the world.

Spencer:

You will be showcasing other comics, like D.L. Hughley, Liz Feldman, and Mike Day.

Jay Leno:

We’ve got a lot of comics on the show. They’ll be doing correspondent pieces. Hopefully, we can make some stars

Spencer:

I know you feel your role as a comedian is not to convey your political point of view. You say it’s not a bully pulpit. Is it difficult to be impartial?

Jay Leno:

As long you put the joke first, people get it. You can go out there and do a few jokes, and it doesn’t take people long to think, “This guy probably thinks this way.” Nobody minds someone with a different point of view, as long as you don’t try to force it on them. It’s like when you meet people that are a different religion. As long as they’re not forcing it on you, or saying yours is no good, you’re not offended or bothered by them.

I have friends that are Jewish. I have friends that are Muslim. I have friends that are Catholic. And we all do jokes about them. It’s fine. But when one of them says, “No. Yours is bad, and you can’t …” That’s when it’s not good.

I remember we had a comic on the show once, and his opening line was, “You know I’m a Democrat.” I said to him afterwards, “You know you lost half the crowd. Just go out there. We’ll figure out, by your material. What’s more important? You to be funny, or people to know you’re a Democrat? Okay? Well, you’re a comic. You can still do what you do.” I think that’s the only time it’s a problem is when you try to force something onto people.

Spencer:

Your interest in green technology is also making headlines. I read about the solar panels and the wind turbine on your garage and the electronic cars that your guests will be racing in on an indoor track. Do you think this segment will raise awareness?

Jay Leno:

When new things are coming, you can either block them and keep them from coming, or you can welcome them and let the cards fall where they may. I think that’s really the trick with almost anything, whether it’s music or technology.

When I was a real little kid, rock ‘n roll was banned. But you knew it’s coming. You try to accept it and try to make it more palatable or whatever. It’s the same thing with green technology. You can either accept it because you think the world’s going to heat up and blow up tomorrow, or you just don’t like the oil companies.

It doesn’t hurt anybody. It makes the air cleaner and better. Well, that seems okay. You can still have your hot rods and your fast cars. The future’s probably a day where people commute every day in some sort of electrical vehicle that doesn’t pollute. Then on the weekends, you want to go to Bob’s Big Boy with your big, heavy car or your Corvette and sit around – fine.

I mean I think that’s what it is. In the 30-something years I’ve lived in California – when I first came here, they used to have smog days, and they would say, “Don’t go out.” There would be like 120 days a year where they didn’t want you to go outside. Well, we don’t have any of those anymore, so obviously there’s something to this.

And the air is cleaner and better. Science and technology always makes things better anyway. Plus, this is something younger people are interested in. So you can either be old fashioned and say, “I don’t believe in computers or cell phones or any of that,” or you can accept it and try to learn it and go with the flow.

Spencer:

Because you were dyslexic as a child, you needed to work hard to keep up with other kids. Do you think the reason people fail is because they give up too easily?

Jay Leno:

I’m a great believer in low self-esteem. I think low self-esteem is good. If you assume you’re the dumbest person in the room, you’ll work harder. My mom would always say, “You know you’re gonna have to work harder than the other kids to get the same thing.”

And I found that if I did work harder than the other kids, I would get the exact same thing. So it worked out okay. I mean that’s just always been my thing. People with high self-esteem tend to be criminals and actors. You go to any prison in the country, and the self-esteem is through the roof. They’re handsome. They’re strong. They’re smart. Same thing with actors.

So to me, it’s a matter of just sort of being a normal person. You can still be competitive and have an ego. It’s just a matter of – don’t assume because you’re good at one thing, you’re good at something else.

I mean I see that all the time. Men think, “Well, I’m a good actor. Well, I must be a good race car driver or a good athlete.” It doesn’t really work out that way.

Spencer:

We know you are hardworking, talented, nice, charitable, brilliant, and a socially-conscious do-gooder who loves his wife, comedy, cars, and motorcycles. What don’t we know about you?

Jay Leno:

I am fairly transparent. I’m not particularly complicated. I don’t drink or smoke or anything like that.

Spencer:

People probably don’t know how brilliant you are.

Jay Leno:

No. I’m not that brilliant at all. I mean that’s very kind. But –

Spencer:

Unless, of course, you don’t want them to know that you’re brilliant.

Jay Leno:

Well, no. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. You know what it is? It’s a genetic flaw that makes you go into show business. It’s not necessarily a plus. We just happen to live in a time where it pays dividends. I mean if this was ancient Rome, it would be – “Who’s making the soldiers laugh? Kill that guy.”

It’s not really a plus. I think it is a bit of a flaw that makes you go into it, because you have a tendency to overcompensate – you want to please people too much. Or you drink too much, or you smoke too much. You just tend to do things in excess. That’s the main thing that gets people in show biz.

I always tell performers, “If you can physically make it to the stage for seven years, you’ll always work.” But most can’t make it to the stage for seven years. They really can’t. Year five, they’re so sick of doing their act. They hate the audience for laughing at it. Or they party after the show. And then pretty soon partying becomes part of their lifestyle, and now they’re drunk when they go on.

Or something happens. They’re too straight. They’re too gay. There’s something that keeps them from just getting to the stage. I mean Sam Kennison, a famous comedian, the poster boy for excess. Was funny. A screaming comedian. Very animated, but into drugs and guns and cocaine and driving fast. One of them was gonna get 'em, and at about year six, it did. If you can get there for seven years, you’ll be fine.

Spencer:

You’ve got it made?

Jay Leno:

Well, not got it made. It’s just a matter of keeping things in proportion. It’s like if every day people give you candy, and you eat the candy every day, sooner or later, you’re either gonna choke to death or die of diabetes or something. You just learn how much candy can you have. Most people just can’t handle the candy. That’s the problem.

Spencer:

If you were having lunch with President Obama, what issue or issues would you discuss with him? And what would you like to see change?

Jay Leno:

Let me see. What did we talk about when we had lunch? I’ve been fortunate enough to meet all the presidents. It’s a thrill. I’m honored by the office, it’s the President of the United States. It’s pretty amazing.

Probably family oriented or something. I mean what could you really say? I don’t think the president wants to hear an idiot comedian drone on about healthcare or something of that nature. I don’t think the president would really care what a comedian has to say. It would be a nice experience. He’s a very nice man.

Spencer:

I heard when Obama returned to your show as President, it was very different.

Jay Leno:

Oh yeah. It’s a whole other planet. It’s a whole other world. The first couple of times he was here, it was just him and two aides, and he carries his jacket. The second time, the whole parking lot was tented, so when the limo pulls in, you can’t tell whether it goes left or right.

Most people don’t know all cell phones are listened in on within 60 miles. You can’t make a call that isn’t bugged. There are a million precautions. The Secret Service come in, and they say, “You don’t come in tomorrow when the President’s here.”

They don’t give any reason why. If you had a joint in your sock back in college, and you got caught, that might be the reason. Or maybe your uncle’s a terrorist – they don’t tell you. They just come in, and they go, “You don’t come in tomorrow.” And a lot of our staff didn’t get to come in. I’m not sure the staff loved that.

Spencer:

Well, many car collectors don’t drive their cars. And I know that you do, and you love doing it. Aside from valet parking issues with your Model-T in downtown L.A., it must be fun to drive cars from your collection. When you appeared on Top Gear, you mentioned driving in the mountains near Malibu. Where else do you open up on your high-performance vehicles?

Jay Leno:

Well, I can say I open up anywhere, really. They’re not all high-performance vehicles. Some are actually quite slow. I mean driving a slow car fast is actually more fun than driving a fast car fast. I mean when you have a car like a Model-T, which the top speed is, maybe, 52, well you can go flat out all day long, and you’re not gonna break the law.

It’s hard to find unique driving experiences anymore, because all cars now sort of have to be the same. They all have to have park, reverse, neutral, drive. I have a Citroen. To me, it’s more seeking out unusual driving experiences. There’s nothing odder than a French car, like the Citroen, or a steam car or a gas turbine or electric. Everything now gets sort of homogenized, so cars don’t really seem much different anymore. Cars now either go fast, or they don’t.

But they aren’t unique anymore. There aren’t some that have a totally different way of starting and running or type of propulsion. So that’s why I like the old stuff.

Spencer:

Some say you are the hardest working man in show business. You sleep four hours a night. How do you keep up this pace?

Jay Leno:

It’s not really a particularly hard job. Like I said, being dyslexic, if I had to add up numbers all day, that would be a nerve-wracking job for me. I mean this is the type of job where you think of something funny and you want to tell it to someone.

Well, I would do that anyway. So anytime you’re doing something that you would do anyway, it’s not really work. If you want to say it’s time consuming – yeah, it is time consuming. But I wouldn’t say it’s particularly hard, hard work. Because if it’s something that you’re fairly good at, that you enjoy – I mean this is really something I would do for free. And the fact that they pay you for it –

Spencer:

Don’t tell them that.

Jay Leno:

Well, but it is true. I mean that’s why you do it. People that write songs write songs anyway. If they happen to write one that’s a hit, well, that’s great. You know? So in terms of being hardworking – yeah, I guess you could say I’m hardworking. But I think it’s less hard than firemen, policemen, and nurses, jobs where people’s lives are on the line.

I mean the worst that happens in my job is nobody is entertained. You don’t make a mistake and people die. Or you’ve slipped up – it’s a brain aneurysm – whatever it is, it isn’t that. So I wouldn’t say it’s particularly hard.

Spencer:

Does it tug at your heart to tell jokes about people who you admire?

Jay Leno:

Well, you know it’s a bit like the Mafia. As long as you don’t go after the wives or the children, everything’s okay. I don’t make fun of President Obama’s kids. I never made a Chelsea Clinton joke. Normally you wouldn’t do the First Lady. But Hillary was more – she was a newsmaker, so that was okay.

I don’t think I ever did a Laura Bush joke. Because, she was not outspoken, even though she was a public figure. I know President Bush. I’ve had dinner with him a bunch of times. We did a million jokes about President Bush. And he gets it, because that goes with the job. I don’t question their patriotism or say they’re evil.

But if someone makes a stupid mistake – I mean people do it about me. I don’t get mad. I get it. If they go after my wife, then I get mad. But if it’s me, I don’t care. So it’s not a problem. I mean that’s the job. And for the most part, people get it and like it. They get it.

Spencer:

Even though you’ve been rewarded with great success, you have not lost touch with reality in a town that creates illusion. You have remained a nice guy, while others forget where they came from. How do you do this?

Jay Leno:

I don’t find that many forget where they come from. What happens is people tend to surround themselves with people. It’s the reason I don’t have an agent or a manager anymore. I was on stage not that long ago, and there was a woman in the corner with a pen. I said, “Meet me at the stage door, and I’ll give you an autograph right after the show. So then the show ends, and I see her hanging around. I go, “I’ll meet you at the door.”

As I get to the stage door, I see her walking away. I hear the guard say, “Mr. Leno has left strict instructions not to be bothered. He doesn’t want to see anyone.” I said, “Hang on. Hang on.” I said, “I didn’t leave any instructions.”

He goes, “Well, we’re told to say that.” I go, “Well, not by me.” And I said, “Miss, come over here.” Well, had I not caught her, I would have just been the most hypocritical, evil, awful, lying person – who promised and then left these orders. It had nothing to do with me.

Most people are pretty good. They’re in show business because they like people. But you get surrounded by people – it’s like sometimes I go someplace, and they provide security. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.” And I go, “Could you not –?” They go, “Excuse me.” And they’re pushing. I go, “Could you not –?” And they go, “Excuse me. It’s Leno coming through.” They are overzealous people who feel they have to do their job, or they speak for you, or whatever it might be. They’re just rude. And that’s kind of what happens.

That’s how people get out of touch. I’ve had it happen to me. “Excuse me. It’s Leno coming through.” I’m like, “Don’t. Can you not do that?” And they hire these enormous men. These just huge guys that intimidate. Especially in Vegas.

Spencer:

What do you think is the secret to your successful marriage? Celebrity and the Hollywood environment do not seem to foster long relationships. But that is not the case with you.

Jay Leno:

It’s the candy theory again. Women that wouldn’t talk to me at 28, why would they talk to me at 59? I’m not getting better looking. You just have to use your logic. It always makes me laugh when I see these guys going out with these younger women. You just kind of go, “Really, Bob.”

You have to lead a normal life. To quote Robert Burns, “See yourself as others see you.” That’s the way do it.