At the age of 65, Jay Leno is driving himself like a pack mule of comedy: performing 210 to 250 dates a year in venues across the country.
Unlike Kanye West, apparently, Leno doesn’t need the money, so it is difficult for any non-famous codger who is still a long way from making his first million to imagine why Leno is still toiling so much and so hard.
“I’m a great believer in low self-esteem,” he said in a phone interview. “And, you know, all the people with high self-esteem are actors and criminals. If you think you’re the smartest person in room, you stop growing.
“I’ll tell you,” Leno said, “there were only 4,000 geniuses in recorded history and in Hollywood there seems to be thousands of them.”
Leno will perform March 3 at the Embassy Theatre.
There are a lot of entertainers who probably like to hear themselves described as “the hardest working man in show business,” but Leno has earned that title year after year.
This stems, he said, from having been diagnosed as dyslexic as a child.
“My mother always told me, ‘You’re going to have to work twice as hard as other kids to get the same thing’ and that always worked for me,” he said. “‘You mean I have to put in eight hours to your four? OK.’”
As a stand-up comic, Leno has never been accused of reinventing the form. From the moment he first got up on stage, there were always more innovative comics around.
Unlike some of those other guys, however, Leno has always been dependably funny. He is a joke surgeon – he loves analyzing jokes based on audience reaction and retooling them for future shows.
Leno is not the sort of guy who should stir controversy but he did on two notable occasions during his career.
The first time was when NBC bestowed “The Tonight Show” upon him in 1992. Many people, including prior host Johnny Carson, had favored having “Late Night’s” David Letterman take over as emcee. Letterman subsequently bolted for CBS and some people grumbled that Leno had somehow stolen the prestigious gig.
For NBC execs, the final choice may have come down to differing dispositions.
“I’m not going to say anything negative about Dave,” he said. “But I come from the Dale Carnegie, look-em-in-the-eye, shake-their-hand school. My dad was a salesman.
“I like people,” Leno said. “I have no problem going to affiliates. I visited almost every NBC affiliate in the country personally and then I read an article that said, “Leno cheated. He went to every NBC affiliate.’”
Leno said he didn’t do anything he wouldn’t naturally have done.
“I mean, you don’t have to go to every affiliate,” he said. “If you volunteer to do it, you know what it is? You make friends and that’s what happened. The affiliates voted on who they wanted.”
Former G.E. chairman Jack Welch used to tell people that “We chose the guy who is the least pain in the ass,’” Leno recalled.
“You know anything about Dave’s personality?” he asked. “I have no problem meeting executives, and Dave’s a prickly guy. He’s a good guy and whatnot, but the suits really couldn’t talk to Dave. They had to talk through his people.
“I was someone – I don’t have an agent. I don’t have a manager,” Leno said. “I was like, ‘What do you need, guys? What do we need to do to make the show number one? Let’s do that. Let’s work harder.’”
A sort of feud played out between the men over the ensuing decades, but Letterman seemed to be the only one making public reference to it.
Prior to Carson leaving “The Tonight Show,” the comics had been admirers of each other. Leno said Letterman’s focus on stage was wordplay and his focus was performance and they each marveled at the other’s unique strengths.
“Some of the favorite times in my career were doing the Letterman show,” Leno said. “Because I would always get a meatball sandwich and I would stand in the hall and I would wait for Dave to come down to make-up and then I’d come around the corner (Leno makes sloppy eating sounds).
“And he would go, ‘How can you eat that (expletive) sandwich? You’re going on in five minutes,’” Leno said. “I would push the sandwich in his face and he’d say, ‘Get that thing away from me!’”
Leno said he’d always try to come up with some interesting phrase for Letterman to wryly mull over while the men were on the couch and behind the desk, respectively.
“For Dave the funny part was on the way to the joke,” he said. “It was never the joke.”
There are no hard feelings between the men now that they have both retired from their shows, Leno said.
“Comics have a bond,” he said. “Only other comics truly understand what you do for a living.
“And when it comes down to talk show hosts, the group is even smaller. There’s really only a dozen people who really understand what these things are all about and how they work and how much effort you have to put in to get a little reward,” Leno said.
One of those dozen people, presumably, is Conan O’Brien, who was a participant in Leno’s second major controversy.
In 2009, O’Brien was given “The Tonight Show” and Leno was moved into a 10 p.m. slot.
Both shows were ratings disappointments and after some ham-handed non-fixes by NBC, O’Brien left the network and Leno was re-installed as the host of “The Tonight Show.”
Many accused Leno of usurping “The Tonight Show” from its rightful heir, but he said that every decision was made by the network.
“They told (O’Brien) what they wanted to do and he left and they said, ‘Do you want show back’ and I said, ‘Sure’,” Leno recalled. “If that makes me the bad guy then I guess that’s what it is.
“I certainly made other people the butt of the joke in my monologues,” he said. “You can’t all of sudden start crying sour grapes when it turns on you every once in a while. That’s all right. That’s fine. Ultimately, it’s a business.”
Nobody wants to see rich people arguing, Leno said.
Asked if giving up the show was like losing a limb, Leno laughed.
“Not at all,” he said. “There’s an old saying. Don’t fall in love with a hooker. OK? It’s not going to work out. I’ve been married for 36 years. I have the same friends I had in high school. The same wife. In certain instances, I have the same car.
“I enjoy observing show business,” Leno said. “I enjoy talking with Charlie Sheen. But I don’t want to be Charlie Sheen. I always found him amusing, interesting and funny. But I don’t want to be him. I don’t want to live that life.”
The real trick, he said, is “to make show business money and lead a normal life.”
Leno said a guy in that lofty, 11:30 p.m. position has to know when it’s time to leave.
“When you’re 40 and talking to the 26-year-old supermodel, it’s sexy. When you’re 65, you’re the old guy,” he said. “At this stage of my life, I shouldn’t have to know all of Kanye West’s music.”
These days, Leno (who said he owns 140 cars and 117 motorcycles) hosts a much lower profile show for vehicle aficionados on CNBC called “Jay Leno’s Garage.”
Leno is able to convince big celebrities to visit by assuring them that the only questions he plans to ask are about cars, motorcycles and planes.
“They’re comfortable talking about their hobby without having to worry about me saying, ‘Your last film bombed. Why do you think that is?’”
Leno said he enjoys returning to “The Tonight Show” in the role no different from any other comic trying to prove himself.
“I’m going on again Thursday,” he said. “And I’m going on as a stand-up comedian. I’m not going on as some old legend who used to do the show. I’m going on as a comedian. You will rise and fall based on jokes that you tell.”
His plan to keep touring as long as he is able isn’t about proving something. It’s about enjoying himself.
“It’s great fun to write jones and tell them for a living,” Leno said. “It gives you a great deal of satisfaction. People laugh. I don’t think of it as work. It’s really fun for me. I truly enjoy it. I’m not one of those people who vomits before they go on stage because they’re so nervous.”