Throughout his 22 years as host of "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno never stopped doing stand-up comedy. After filming during the week, he would moonlight, doing gigs on the weekend. Now that he's no longer sitting behind the desk, Leno, 64, can focus on his comedy career.
Leno comes to the NYCB Theatre at Westbury Friday, when he'll go back to doing what he does best, making us laugh. Newsday spoke with him about replacing Johnny Carson, his thoughts on Jimmy Fallon and the art of the monologue.
What do you make of all the shifting in the late night landscape?
There's really not that much change. It's all white guys being replaced with other white guys. Nobody is doing anything decidedly different except Jimmy Fallon.
What's your impression of the new "Tonight Show"?
I think Jimmy is terrific. He brings a whole different sensibility to it. He's closer to what Johnny Carson was like than anybody else. He can be silly and he has a lot of different talents. In this era of viral videos, Jimmy works and he's kept the show number one, which is the goal.
Did it take time to adjust after leaving the show?
No, I finished the show and went on to my gigs in Florida. The big difference is that you don't have to write 14 minutes of jokes every single day. I always learned from Johnny to do a monologue. The shows that do not succeed are the ones where the host comes out and says, "Hey! How are you doing tonight? Are you in a good mood? Give me some music!" Ellen DeGeneres is hugely successful because she's a comedian. If you watch "Ellen," even if there's nobody on that you like, you know she will have something funny to say.
Do you think doing the weekly stand-up gigs kept you sharper and on your toes?
I think so. The stage is not a normal place to be, but if you do it every couple of days it becomes second nature.
What do your fans expect from you?
It's funny. People ask me, "Do you bring a couch on stage and interview people?" I say, "No, I do a stand-up act." It's hilarious.
What's the difference between writing for a monologue versus a stand-up show?
The monologue is so different because the jokes have a shelf-life of hours, maybe days if you are lucky. When people hear the monologue they just watched the news, then they watch you make fun of the news. "The Tonight Show" is like a newspaper -- you take the big stories of the day and do jokes about them in a series of one-liners. You can't elaborate. Doing stand-up allows you the time to set up your joke. Your stand-up act is more like a monthly magazine -- a little more information told without as much sensationalism.
Looking back, who was your favorite guest?
I like politics, and having the first sitting president ever was amazing. The first time I met Barack Obama, he came in with one guy. Then when he was president, the entire parking lot was tented. The difference was incredible.
Does it bother you when people imitate you?
No, that's fine. For this kind of money they should be able to punch you in the face!
Did you feel a lot of pressure following Johnny Carson?
Oh, yeah! You get beat up every day, but that's OK. I was on the show a year and a half and someone sent me a magazine article from 1969 when Johnny had been hosting for seven years. The article said, "When is Jack Paar coming back? We are so sick of Johnny's foolish antics . . . " That's nothing against Johnny, but you realize that everybody wants something else and things always look better with time.
You had offers to go to other networks. Why did you stay at NBC?
All my people were tied up for 18 months past my contract. I couldn't bring anybody with me. Plus, NBC said they wanted me to stay. They said they'd continue to pay my staff for two years if I agreed to stay on. I didn't really think the 10 p.m. show ("The Jay Leno Show," Sept. 2009-Feb. 2010) would work, but I took a chance. NBC is my home for better or for worse. It's been good and bad to me. But it's been better than it's been bad.
What do you think your "Tonight Show" legacy will be?
Not my problem. It's a TV show. I have the same wife and friends I started with, and they are all very happy for me. I really enjoyed "The Tonight Show." I'm proud that our writers were the highest-paid in the business and that I kept the same people for 22 years. We had 64 children born amongst our staff in my 22 years. It was fun, but you move on to the next thing.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
No, I don't think I would, because you learn from every single experience, and it was life changing. The experiences I went through with "The Tonight Show" give you empathy and help you understand life. You really find out who your friends are. I wouldn't change anything.
Jimmy Kimmel got snippy with you on the air in 2010 during a "Tonight Show" segment. Why do you think that happened?
He called me once and said, "Listen, I'm sorry about all this. I come from radio, where you pick a fight with the other guy, like the Howard Stern kind of stuff. You never fought back so I wanted to apologize." We became friends, I thought, then I went on his show and he came on mine. People asked why I didn't edit it out. You know what, it's TV. I fell for it. I looked like an idiot and he got pleasure out of it. OK, fine. That's probably why he's in third place.
What's the secret to balancing it all?
The real trick is to make show-business money and lead a normal life, then you'll be really happy. I'm a big shot in my family. I can put a roof on my Uncle Louie's house, and when I go home, I get the big meatball. That's the way it works.
WHEN|WHERE 7 p.m., Friday NYCB Theatre at Westbury
INFO $59.50-$155.50, 800-745-3000, livenation.com
LENO AND LETTERMAN
Before they were TV rivals, Jay Leno and David Letterman were close peers on the comedy scene in the '70s.
"To me, I always considered Dave a broadcaster who was a stand-up comedian and myself a stand-up who was also a broadcaster," says Leno. "Dave never really liked doing stand-up that much, whereas I really enjoyed it."
The duo had different styles and approaches to comedy from the beginning.
"Letterman was a great wordsmith and a little nervous on the performing end, where I was very loud and verbose but the jokes weren't that strong," says Leno. "You learn from one another."
Despite their late-night feud, Leno claims they still touch base "once in a while." In fact, it's rumored that with Letterman retiring in May, Leno just might be his last guest.
"I don't know," Leno says coyly. "We'll see what happens."