Jay Leno, who will be performing in East Hampton on Saturday night for Guild Hall’s annual Season Spectacular to benefit its arts and education functions, admits that he doesn’t miss the intense white light of national television.
In fact, Leno is doing just fine, he said in a recent chat. He remains extremely busy, which has been his modus over his entire professional life, still performing about 150 shows a year, most for charity. He also tends to his ongoing CNBC series, “Jay Leno’s Garage,” which is also on the web.
He has no further aspirations, no grand goal, no missing piece in his life’s puzzle. “I’m a huge believer in low self-esteem,” he says, not quite convincingly, but Jay does otherwise appear to remain Jay: happy to still be in the game.
That doesn’t mean he’s necessarily happy with what’s happened to late night TV.
Are you ever going to take it easy?
I’m not a relaxed guy. I just like to do stuff. It’s great fun and there’s no greater fun than coming up with funny stuff to say.
Do you miss “Tonight”?
No, I don’t. [David] Letterman and I were lucky. The fun thing about politics when I was doing it is that no one ever questioned anyone’s patriotism. Their judgment, yes. Their patriotism, never. Now it’s about how Islamophobic . . . [a president] is, how anti-women. It’s not as much fun to me. Now, I do love everyone doing late night. They’re all good. But you feel so negative when you watch — the constant negativity. It’s fun just to have a funny joke, not an indictment.
Come on, you must watch some of them.
I do like Jimmy’s [Fallon] show and I watch [Jimmy] Kimmel once in a while. I’m a joke guy. I like jokes first, politics second. I like it when you do a joke and some people say, I think . . . [the comedian] is a Democrat, and others say, I think he’s a Republican. They can’t figure it out because they’re focusing on the gag.
Let’s talk Jimmy [Fallon]. Do you give him any advice?
We talk all the time. Jimmy is the most Carson-like of anyone who has hosted this show. Johnny was boyish when he started, and you forget that he was a performer, too. He could play the drums, do magic, pretty good impressions.
What do you tell him?
I would say the same thing to anybody — it’s a long race, and remember, when I started, Letterman was winning. Eventually you try to bring people around to your way of thinking. . . . Jimmy didn’t hit [President] Trump as hard as he should have, so [Stephen] Colbert got a lead. But ultimately, you [the viewer] would have to want to go back.
The infamous Hair Tousle — when Jimmy tousled the famed Trump mantle — obviously got him in hot water with critics and fans. What did you think?
I think he realizes it was a mistake . . . [but] the goal of a talk-show host is to make every guest feel more human and feel like they’re having fun, and that was always the model. You’d bring Bob Dole on or John McCain, and they’d tell the same jokes and that was just sort of the way it was.
But there obviously is a great bitterness dividing the electorate, and — by proxy — late-night viewers. How do you get around a “just tell the joke” style when everyone seems to be out for blood?
We had an episode of “Garage” where I had Joe Biden race Corvettes against Colin Powell. They teased each other, but in a fun way. People seemed to like that. As much as people talk about war, they like peace better.
Some late-night viewers do seem to prefer that edge, though — or a sense that the host is on their side.
I think television should be a unifying factor as opposed to a divisive factor. You’ve got a show? The idea is to play it down the middle. I once booked myself [a gig] at Oral Roberts University to see if I could play [to the Mormon audience]. They wanted political jokes — not sex jokes — but I realized it’s the same with everyone else. . . . There’s a tendency for a lot of comedians to go find their audience and play to that crowd. But me, [Jerry] Seinfeld and a few others, you find the crowd and adapt to it. They don’t care about anyone’s political opinions, and I don’t. I remember once we had a comedian on ‘Tonight’ — who I won’t name — who came out and did a stand-up, and his opening line was, “I’m a liberal Democrat.” He’d instantly lost a huge part of his potential audience. If he had just come out and started, [his politics] would have been obvious by the third joke anyway.
Season Spectacular with Jay Leno
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Saturday, Guild Hall, 158 Main St., East Hampton
INFO $250; 631-324-4050, guildhall.org