By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
Well, you knooow … a celebrity interview like this would normally start with a little background on the celebrity.
But — I mean, really — this is Jay Leno. Is that absolutely necessary? For the man who tucked America into bed for 22 years?
However, for those who never stayed up past 11:30, who don’t own a TV, or who were born after 2000:
Jay Leno was host of The Tonight Show from 1992 to 2014 (with one messy little interruption).
He’s originally a standup comedian who, at 68, still performs about 200 gigs a year.
He’s a major car guy who now hosts Jay Leno’s Garage on CNBC.
And, more importantly for us, he’s going to be the major car guy at the Concours d’Elegance charity auto extravaganza in Boca Raton Feb. 22-24. (See below for details.)
Now, on to the interview (oh, and he really does say “you know” and “I mean” a lot, omitted here for space reasons from practically every sentence) …
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You’re an inspiration for anyone contemplating a career change later in life. Was going from a talk show to a completely different kind of gig a big adjustment?
There was no adjustment, really. I was a comedian before I did The Tonight Show. And while I was doing it, I was a standup comedian. When I left, I started doing Jay Leno’s Garage, which is my hobby. I started it about 12 years ago on YouTube and we got about 3 million subscribers. So we went to CNBC and they liked the idea. I also have a line of care-care products, which do pretty good. But I’m not quite sure if that’s a career change. Maybe it is.
The mistake people make is they leave a show like The Tonight Show and they get a new show exactly like their old show. But the trouble is, with the new show you don’t have the budget, you don’t have the audience, you don’t have the network backup. By the time I got The Tonight Show, it was paid for. By that I mean, all the studios, all the equipment — all that had been amortized over 30 years of Johnny [Carson]. So, consequently, we can have a big band with 17 people in it. We can afford a lot of things. That’s why I chose to do something completely different, because people can’t compare one to the other.
When I did The Tonight Show, I was never really a big sports guy or music guy, so I would have to fake it, you know? I mean, who’s on? What’s their album? I would listen to the album. OK, fine. But I wasn’t necessarily a big fan. But [Garage] is what I do anyway, it’s what I like to do, so it wasn’t really that big a deal. I mean, I talk about cars and motorcycles the way most guys talk about sports, so it was an easy transition. It’s not really work if you make your hobby your job.
I believe that’s called living the dream.
Yeah, it really is. It’s what I would do anyway. When I go to the Boca Raton Concours, I love talking to car guys. People say, oh, would you go out and talk to people. Sure. Yeah, I’ll go out and talk to them all day — it’s what I’d do anyway. It’s great fun.
How many times have you been to the Concours?
This will be my [fifth]. I was the host once and I was there last year with Tim Allen.
What is it that brings you back?
Oh, the cars! I’m a car guy. I try to do all the car shows. And they asked me to be the entertainment this year. So I’m thrilled.
Can you give us Jay Leno’s guide to the Concours?
No matter what kind of cars you’re into, they will have them there. That’s the fun part about it. Whether it’s cars in the ’50s, or muscle cars or European sports cars, there’s a little something for everybody. And [event co-founder] Rick [Case] does a first-class job. He really spares no expense to make it sort of the East Coast version of the Pebble Beach Concours.
Is there one thing there that shouldn’t be missed?
It’s the cars in the field. That’s the whole deal. There’s the dinner, there’s the show, but the stars of the event are really the automobiles. You have everything from guys that did backyard restorations to guys that spent billions having something meticulously restored, so you’ve got every kind of vehicle represented.
Speaking of cars, how many do you own?
You sound like my wife. It’s about 186 cars and 163 motorcycles.
That was actually my next question — how does Mavis feel about you having all those cars?
Oh, fine! I’m not doing coke and banging hookers, so it’s fine. When you come home reeking of transmission fluid, believe me they know where you’ve been.
Do you have a favorite car?
No. If I had a favorite I wouldn’t have all these cars.
Have you ever been in a car accident?
Oh, yeah, I’ve rolled over in cars and gone off the road. Not since I was a kid, really.
What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in a car?
I don’t know. I assume that’s some sort of sexual question. It didn’t happen in a car.
I’m not a car person …
Believe me, that couldn’t be more obvious.
…But, if you were trying to convert me, what would you say?
It’s not a matter of converting. Most people, it’s their affection for a parent … their dad would take them fishing in a station wagon or their grandfather would take them for ice cream in a big Cadillac. I meet an awful lot of people who want to have the car that was popular when they were young. The first sporty car their dad ever bought was the ’65 Mustang and suddenly they went from being the nerd to the coolest kid in school ’cause their dad had a Mustang. And over the years the Mustang would get wrecked or sold, so they go looking for one of those Mustangs. That’s where most of it comes from.
When you’re a kid and you’re on your bicycle and the older kids go by in some cool car with girls in it, you go, ‘Oh, man, I gotta get one of those someday.’ It’s that kind of deal.
On my show we always have a theme. One of the more popular ones is ‘The Car My Father Drove.’ Paul Allen, the Microsoft guy, the multi-billionaire, he had a ’73 Buick 325 Electra because that’s what his dad had. Most people like cars because they’re reliving some part of their childhood.
Is that true for you?
Oh, yeah! I have a ’67 Ford 7-liter Galaxy, which is the car I convinced my dad to buy. So I found one.
How do you like playing an auto technician on the Tim Allen show, Last Man Standing?
Oh, I really enjoy it. Tim and I are really good friends. That’s one of those jobs I come on whenever they ask. I have no idea what the job pays. I mean, show business is not difficult. People just make it difficult with lawyers and agents. When I got The Tonight Show, I never asked what the job paid. I just took it. And if you’re any good, you’ll do fine. If you start negotiating and all this nonsense, asking for this and here’s what I want … I was astounded at the number of stars that had idiot agents or managers that would say, ‘Now, look, you go out and talk and say you have to leave.’ Well, why do you have to leave? ‘Because it looks like you’re important.’ Well, no, it doesn’t. It just looks like you’re leaving.
So, how did it feel for you to leave … for good?
It was fine. I left right in time. It’s basically a young man’s game. When you’re 42 and you’re talking to a 26-year-old supermodel, that’s sexy. When you’re 65, you’re now the creepy old guy, OK? Plus, there’s a certain age where I can’t pretend to know all of Jay Z’s music — you just age out of it. I did it for 22 years and I loved it. I did it in the era when Bush was dumb and Clinton was horny. And it was fairly easy. Now everything is very nasty. We live in an era where if people don’t like a performer’s politics, they don’t like his jokes.
I have good friends on both the Republican and Democrat side. If you talk to me for 10 minutes you can figure out my politics, but I never hit people over the head with it. You try to make fun of both sides equal. But now you have to hate this one or love this one. It’s much easier and funnier to make fun of someone when you have a slight affection for them, as opposed to when you really hate them, because then the nastiness overrides the joke, if that makes any sense. You go, ‘Whoa! What’s that all about?’ And that’s sort of where it is now.
That’s especially obvious in the skewering of Trump on the late-night shows.
Believe me, I’m no Trump fan. I don’t like the man at all. But my dislike has nothing to do with politics. I’m sorry, but any person who doesn’t think John McCain is a true American hero, I have no use for. John McCain was a good friend of mine. I used to write jokes for him and he’d come to my garage. He drove my Corvette and did a burnout in the parking lot with it. We did not always agree on politics, but if he believed it, I would look into it and say, ‘Well, he’s a good man and if he believes this, there must be a reason why.’
You recently said in The Wall Street Journal: ‘Working on cars is the real me …. Deep down, I’m a car guy who’s funny.’ Does that mean you could live happily without doing comedy?
No, no. I would take comedy over it. It’s what got you here. It’s what helped you meet your wife. It’s what keeps the roof over your head. No, I love doing comedy. I’m one of those people who believes that the heart is happiest when the head and the hands work together. When you talk for a living, you don’t appreciate how hard people work who work with their hands. When you take a transmission out and put it back in, you realize the average guy makes maybe 80 bucks for doing that and you go, ‘Man, this is a tough way to make a living.’ When you stand up and talk and you get tens of thousands of dollars, you go: ‘Never take this for granted.’ This is the greatest job in the world.
One last question: Wouldn’t it be a great example of peace and harmony for our divisive nation now if you were to appear on the David Letterman Netflix interview show?
Nobody cares about that. It’d be fine with me. We’ll see what happens. Make the suggestion.
I’m kind of hoping I just did.
Well, if anybody asks, I would certainly do it.
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O N L I N E B O N U S
More of our interview with Jay Leno
When you think back on your years on The Tonight Show, is there one memory that’s really special?
One rather odd one was one night I had John F. Kennedy Jr. on the show. I was 13 when President Kennedy was assassinated and I remember coming home from school and my mother sitting and watching the funeral on TV and crying hysterically. When little John Jr. saluted the coffin, I remember my mother saying: ‘Oh, that poor little boy. What’s going to happen? His father’s dead.’ And when you’re a kid and your mom’s overwrought, what do you do?
Flash forward 48 years. I have John F. Kennedy Jr. on the show, and I go into the dressing room. I shook his hand, ‘How you doing? Good to see you.’ And it didn’t hit me there. Then I was doing the intro, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, my next guest…’ And as I looked up to the monitor to see him come around the corner, I suddenly just flashed on my mom. At no point, did I ever think I would meet that little boy. My mom was dead by that time, but it was just an emotional moment for me. It was like, wow, what are the odds of this triangle being completed? And if she was alive I could tell my mother this little boy turned out OK. Ironically, he died a month later. It was just one of those moments.
Barack Obama was interesting. The first time he came on by himself and he had his jacket over his shoulder: ‘My name is Barack Hussein Obama and I’m running for president of the United States.’ I said, ‘Let me get this right — a black guy nobody ever heard of whose middle name is Hussein is running for president? Is that correct?’ And he started laughing. ‘Oh, you’re going to be a two-termer. Oh, yeah, you’ll win overwhelmingly.’ It just seemed so incongruous at the time. And the next time he came back, he was president.
When did it first hit you that you could make people laugh?
I was in the fourth grade and Mrs. Allen, my teacher, was talking about Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham and how cruel he was. She said the sheriff would boil Robin’s men in oil. And I put my hand up and said, ‘Well, you know why he did that to Tuck?’ And she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because he was a friar.’ I saw her go like, ‘All right, enough of that.’ But then I saw her kind of smile. And later in the day one of the other teachers said: ‘Hey, Jay, come here. What did you say in Mrs. Allen’s class — something about Robin Hood?’ I went, ooh, Mrs. Allen told that to somebody else. Even though she was mad at me, she actually thought it was funny. And when you’re a kid, you remember those things.
On the Marc Maron podcast last year, you said: ‘Being a comic is the greatest job in the world.’ It seems like a pretty tough job to me. What makes you say that?
I believe it is. If you’re a musician and you have a gig, you gotta get there a day ahead of time, set up equipment, do a rehearsal. You got your drunken band members that didn’t get there on time. You got broken instruments, whatever. When you’re a comedian, if your gig’s at 8, you get there at quarter to 8, and you’re going, ‘Ack! I gotta kill 15 minutes.’
Comedy — you just show up. You carry it with you all time. You can do a show at the drop of a hat, literally. And that’s what’s great. It’s the most primitive form of entertainment because it doesn’t require anything, other than amplification. But even without the mic — when I was doing shows for the USO, I would just get up and stand on a tank and tell jokes. And they were a great audience. And you realize that’s all you need — what you have with you. It’s the way people entertained a thousand years ago. It’s a great job.
When a joke bombs it seems like it wouldn’t be so great.
Well, when a joke bombs now, you have other jokes around it to protect you. The hardest part is starting out. It’s awful. I remember I was opening for Buddy Rich, the drummer. It was literally my first job. They said, ‘Please welcome comedian Jay Leno.’ I hear a guy go, ‘He sucks, we hate him.’ And I’m thinking, how could they …? Did they see me come in? Did they know my parents? When you talk to comedians, they all say: ‘It took me 10 minutes, but I got ’em.’ Or, ‘I never got ’em.’ Whatever. When you’re famous, you got ’em from the get-go and now you have to hold on to them. But it’s such an honor to have people come see you, after years of opening for other people and getting booed … so many awful jobs.
Yet, you say it’s the best job.
If it’s what you like to do, then it is. My dad was a prizefighter. There’s a job — even on your best day at work, you get punched in the face. But he liked it. On my worst day, I got punched in the face.
My editor, who’s seen you at the Concours, remarked that your energy is like a force of nature. Where does that come from?
I don’t know. I just like to work. It’s just what I’ve always done. You know, I am dyslexic. As a kid my mother always said to me, ‘You’re going to have to work twice as hard as the other kids to get the same thing.’ At the time that seemed like a fair tradeoff.
I remember before we were real comedians, I’d go to the Improv in New York to audition and you’d line up at 6 o’clock to get an 11 o’clock spot. And guys in front of me would go, ‘F— this, I’m not standing in line,’ and they walked. I go, great, I move up! I just sort of ran my whole life that way. And it worked. While other people are on vacation, I’ll be working. And to me that’s kind of how you get ahead. Or at least it seemed to be at the time.
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IF YOU GO
Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance
The 13th annual Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance will be Feb. 22-24 at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, and for the first time, headliner and celebrity judge Jay Leno will attend all the weekend’s events.
On its 100th anniversary, Bentley Motorcars will be celebrated as Marque of the Year. Also, Ryan Hunter-Reay will receive the National Automotive Racing Lifetime Achievement Award; Mercedes-Benz USA President & CEO Dietmar Exler will receive the National Automotive Manufacturer Lifetime Achievement Award; and Rick Hendrick, chairman and owner of the Hendrick Automotive Group and Hendrick Motorsports, will receive the National Automotive Dealer Lifetime Achievement Award.
Presented by Mercedes-Benz and AutoNation and founded and directed by Rita and Rick Case of The Rick Case Automotive Group, the Boca Raton Concours is the world’s largest for charity and fully benefits the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County. Here’s a rundown:
Friday: The duPont Registry Live Hangar Party features tastings from South Florida’s finest restaurants, celebrity guest Leno, live entertainment and exotic cars, boats, private jets and more at Atlantic Aviation at the Boca Raton Airport.
Saturday: Educational automotive seminars are followed by the Grand Gala Dinner, Auction & Show, including a performance by Leno.
Sunday: Sponsored by Rick Case Automotive Group, the automobile and motorcycle exhibition is preceded by a private brunch and Q&A session with Leno and Wayne Carini, host of TV’s Chasing Classic Cars. Leno will also search the show field for his favorite car and motorcycle and present them with his Big Dog Garage Award.
All events are open to the public. For more information and tickets, please visit bocaCDE.com or call 954-537-1010.
— Greg Carannante