Jay Talking
From the Garage to the Stage, Jay Leno is Comedy's Great Communicator

By Lee Valentine Smith

Long before Jimmy Fallon, an entire generation knew Jay Leno as the pioneering host of the Tonight Show. But since the '70s, the affable comic who actually followed Johnny Carson, Steve Allen and Jack Parr into the position, has combined his stand-up career with his various television jobs. Hitting the road nearly every weekend while balancing his Tonight duties, Leno racked up frequent flyer miles as he played national and international venues.

Since 2014, he's combined his road-tested comedy with his love of classic cars and motorcycles. Jay Leno's Garage has been a consistently popular part of CNBC's programming lineup since 2015. An accompanying You Tube series goes into even finer detail about Leno's extensive collection of vehicles, while a wide variety of guests stop by to discuss their own car and bike memories on the televised edition. Die-hard fans can even purchase Leno-brand car accessories, including a spiffy wash-bucket emblazoned with the show's familiar logo.

This month he returns to Atlanta for a new performance at the Cobb Energy Centre. INsite spoke at length with Leno by phone from his expansive Burbank, California garage.

What's new in the Garage?

Well, we're shooting an episode with Jon Hamm from Mad Men today and we're doing Kenny Loggins tomorrow. The You Tube show is more technical but the CNBC show is more celebrity-oriented. Like today with Jon, we're going back to talk about the first piece-of-crap car that he ever had, it's sorta tongue-in-cheek. There's always an interesting angle, so you're basically doing the Tonight Show in a car, just driving around. For some reason, people seem to loosen up a lot more and speak a little freer because there's no audience, just two people talking in a car.

Is Kenny Loggins bringing his car to the show?

You know Tom Cruise has the sequel or whatever you want to call it to Top Gun. Kenny did the "Danger Zone" song in it. So we'll have the Porsche from the original movie and we'll drive around. Any kind of tenuous connection we can think of, we'll try.

A car is much more than a thing, it becomes an extension of the owner in many cases.

People either really love cars or they hate them. Here in L.A., you have plenty of both, so it makes it interesting. But yeah, I think there's something to that. Especially people of my generation. A lot of people see it as just a way to get from point A to point B, but for a lot of us, it was sort of the iPhone of the day. It took you out of everyday reality.

How's your collection now? I know you have well over 150 classic cars.

I think it's around 189 cars now and 168 motorcycles. Something like that.

What's your latest addition to the collection?

The latest one, let's see. You know I buy the stories more than the car. In 1957, a guy bought his wife an Imperial. It was just enormous and too big for her to drive, so it became an interesting piece over the years. We refurbish the cars and then if the owners are still around we'll reunite them, drive around and hear their story. It's just fascinating to me.

Before you hosted Tonight, you were a frequent guest on the late-night shows. I particularly enjoyed a thing you'd do called "What's My Beef?" So what's your beef, circa 2020?

I think now it's the loss of personal communication, actually talking one-on-one. I really enjoy doing the live shows because people gather and then you talk. You hear their immediate reaction. It's always amazing to me when people say, 'Oh I saw so-and-so's comedy special and I didn't think it was that funny.' I go, 'Oh yeah, well where did you watch it?' 'I watched it on my iPhone.' It's not going to be funny on your phone, you have to experience it live with other people. There's a big difference from looking in the window of a nightclub than being on the other side of the door. It's like night and day. So to me, this lack of real communication is a problem. You'd think texting would have come first. 'You know you don't have to type anymore, now can just talk!' 'Oh really? What a huge improvement that is!' I'm still amazed that people would rather type than talk. People say, 'Send me a text.' 'How about if I give you a call?' 'No, don't call me!' I think that lack of human interaction is making society suffer somewhat. I'm dyslexic so when I'd write letters, I'd misspell some of the words and I'd have to start all over again. So I'm still a taking guy.

Speaking of seeing live comedy, there was a time when being seen on the Tonight Show could make or break an act in the span of five minutes.

Oh yeah. Now you'd have to do ten or fifteen appearances to get the visceral impact that only one appearance used to get. A good example of that would be Freddie Prinze. He'd been on a few shows but one night he was on the Tonight Show with Johnny. Sammy Davis, Jr was on the couch and Sammy, I loved him. He was the best entertainer and the best audience. Freddie was doing his bit, you know, and you could see Sammy literally falling off the couch. Slappin' the floor and just laughing his ass off. Then Johnny invites him over to the couch. He became such an immediate sensation, literally the next day he got the Chico And The Man show, based on that one appearance.

Content is much different now, too. A lot of the comics I talk with don't even have a "tight five" that's suitable for network TV.

Yeah that's definitely different now. But with comedy something is either funny or it's not. The thing that's changed is the attention span. When you see a clip of, say, Bob Newhart on the Tonight Show in the '60s, he'd do eight or nine minutes. And just his setup would seem intolerable now. 'Ok, here's a woman, she's 62, she's going in to get her driver's license for the very first time. Ok, now here we are…' It seems like forever. Now if you don't get a laugh in the first few seconds, people just switch off right away. Oh, he's bombing! No, he's building. But other than the attention span, not a whole lot has really changed. Funny is funny. The difference now is you can rocket to the middle and then you'll just stay there. You can work kinda dirty and that's OK, it'll get you to the middle but then what? It's not hard to take a clean joke and make it dirty. But it's almost impossible to take a dirty joke and make it clean. When the punchline is motherf*cker, it's not really a punchline, it's just shock value. I'm not offended by obscenity I just get bored by it.

In the old days, you had to be clean or at least have some clean material or you'd never be seen on TV.

That's right. A comic was sort of forced to think and work a certain way. Now you can do whatever you want and put it on You Tube yourself. Sometimes it's sad, you'll see guys who have a really funny five-minute clip on You Tube and then some promoter will book them to headline for 10,000 dollars and they don't even have forty good minutes yet. But they have to fill up the time with something. In the old days it was harder to get to the success, but you could stay there longer. Now you can get some success fairly quickly and you can fade just as quickly.

Some of the newer acts are headlining based on one Netflix special.

Yeah and you can go see 'em and they'll be doing that Netflix special. How long can that last? That's why I don't like to do the Netflix specials. I'd rather come to your town and do it live. That way I always know where my act has been. 'Ok, I haven't been here in like five years so I'll come back.'

You're one of the few comics who can do a seemingly effortless show for a solid 90 minutes to two hours without relying on any filler or crowd-work.

Seinfeld and I talk about this all the time. It's about having an act and being ready. I try not to write stuff down, so I like to work a lot to keep it all fresh in my head. I hate comedy that obviously wastes time. 'How y'all doin'?, Where ya from?' I hate when I see comedians come out and go, 'Ok so what do ya wanna talk about?' Hey, I bought the ticket. You do your job!

Jay Leno performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 21 at Cobb Energy Centre. For more information, please visit cobbenergycentre.com.

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