You can find a few versions of Jay Leno circulating in the public realm. One is the proverbial “nice guy” who paid his dues and, endearingly, uses whimsical humor to be accepted and liked. That Jay Leno works his ass off, is a loyal coworker and husband, successfully helmed The Tonight Show for 23 years, and donates his time to causes like the annual Comics for Kids in Pebble Beach for the Boys & Girls Club.
Then there’s another Jay Leno, equally as public, whose narrative reads that he screwed over David Letterman and then Conan O’Brien out of the Tonight Showthrone, and watered down his comedy to win bigger audiences. That Jay Leno has been criticized and satirized by fellow comedians like Arsenio Hall, Patton Oswalt, Jimmy Kimmel, Rosie O’Donnell and Howard Stern.
There are other sides to Jay Leno: the children’s book author, the corporate speaker, the star of CNBC’s Jay Leno’s Garage. And then there’s the funny man with jokes. You can catch that Jay Leno this Friday, July 21, at Golden State Theatre when he performs his long-standing standup comedy.
Weekly: You started out in Boston, but it seems you’ve converted into a Californian.
Leno: The first time I came here I’m like, “What was I wasting my time back East for?” It’s freezing cold. Here, you’re reading car magazines, people are surfing, girls are in bikinis, kids are driving hot rods. I always felt geographically misplaced.
What accounts for your work ethic?
I’ve got some dyslexia. I’m a huge believer in low self-esteem. People with high self-esteem seem lazy and arrogant. Low self-esteem makes you realize you’re not the smartest person in the room, that maybe you should shut up and listen and learn something.
Is your standup different from your monologue at The Tonight Show?
No, it’s basically the same. On The Tonight Show you do new jokes in the same place every night; when you go on the road you do the same jokes in a different place every night.
You’ve done Concours d’Elegance since the early ’80s. What do you look forward to most?
Most car shows you see the usual – ’57 Chevys and hot rods and all. At Pebble Beach you see things you only see in magazines, cars you didn’t even know existed. Every now and then I go, “Who made that? I never heard of that.”
Is Jay Leno’s Garage as fun as it looks, or more work than it looks?
It’s a little bit of both. Plus it’s my hobby. When I was doing The Tonight Show I was never much of a music guy or book guy so I would always have to read up and fake it a little bit. Here, it’s exactly what I like to do.
What’s your favorite car for under $30,000?
The Miata. It’s a sports car, it handles, it’s a lot of fun to drive. I know people with $100,000 cars who drive a Miata because it feels light and lively.
What is your ideal ride for driving Highway 1 through Big Sur?
A convertible. The Mustang GT works pretty good for that.
Who have been some favorite Tonight Show guests?
The best is Robin Williams. You never gave him any notes [and] he was always hysterical. Robin and I go back to almost the first days of him being in comedy, the early ’70s. And we got to be friends pretty quickly. I enjoy watching Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, these old men, sitting around teasing each other. I always hoped that one day me, Robin and Billy Crystal would sit around and talk about the old days and tease each other. The fact that Robin’s gone now, that makes it really sad because that will never happen. I think people would have enjoyed seeing Robin Williams as an old man.
Who’s been another favorite guest?
I always liked political guests. The first time Barack Obama came to the show, he came by himself. He had his jacket over his shoulder and said, “My name is Barack Hussein Obama, I’m running for president.” I was like, “Right. A guy named Hussein Obama.”
The Tonight Show had some controversy. Are you at peace with it?
Um… yeah. You know what you’re talking about is just showbusiness nonsense. Please. Nah. There’s no problem. If it’s not cocaine, if it’s not drunk driving, and you’re not cheating on your wife, don’t worry about it.
What really makes you laugh?
I remember once on The Tonight Show Charlie Sheen just happened to say, “I like hookers and cocaine.” And the audience applauded. “Why are you applauding?!” Because he was so honest. That’s what they like! That’s what’s funny.
Do you see yourself at some point leaning back and kicking your feet up?
I hope not. Maybe when I have my stroke. You know what it is? I went for years when I couldn’t get arrested. Now you put [my] name on something and people want to buy a ticket. I’m so flattered by that.
JAY LENO performs 7pm (sold out) Friday, July 21, at Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $64-$130 for 10pm show. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com