Jay Leno likes to keep busy, which is why, on a recent Tuesday morning, he was giving a phone interview while waiting with a broken-down, “hundred-year-old” motorcycle by the side of a road in Los Angeles, pausing occasionally to greet passersby who were offering help.
“It’s hilarious. It has absolutely no brakes, and the clutch broke, and I’m in L.A. traffic. So I think there’s someone watching over me,” said the former Tonight Show host and current star of Jay Leno’s Garage (10 p.m. Thursdays, CNBC).
While Leno, who will be headlining at the Academy of Music on May 19, waited, we talked about the no-win nature of playing the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, his unwillingness to slow down, and the part that a gig in Valley Forge with Perry Como played in launching his marriage of 38 years. Here, edited and condensed, is how the conversation went:
How is your Academy of Music appearance different from your stand-up act?
Well, I think it is my stand-up act. You know, my favorite thing is comedians who play clubs for years and then you bring a lamp and a chair on stage and call it a one-man show. I’m doing a comedy act. What do they have me listed as?
They’re calling it “An Evening with Jay Leno.”
Oh, they always do that. That’s just a fancy way [of saying it]. It’s a comedy show! Why would you want to spend an evening with me? I’d rather see a comedy show.
So your motorcycle broke down and you thought you’d do an interview?
You need to utilize all your time. I’m all right. A shaft broke, and I’m waiting for my guys to come with a truck. I can’t fix it by the side of the road. I didn’t crash, so I’m glad about that.
Happy to hear it. So with all that’s going on right now, do you ever miss having a late-night show?
No, I don’t. You know, it’s so ugly now. I did it when [George W.] Bush was dumb and [Bill] Clinton was horny. I never questioned anybody’s motives, I just questioned their judgment. The world we live in now, if you don’t agree with a performer’s politics, then you don’t like what they do. I have friends on both sides. People on the other side I don’t quite understand, but we have informed, lively discussions. I watched the first season of [Netflix’s] House of Cards. Then by the second season, [he thought], well, this is ridiculous, this could never happen. Well, now it’s a documentary. You wake up in a world where [Bill] Cosby’s in jail, [Donald] Trump is president. What’s going on?
There is a lot of news, anyway.
There’s a lot of breaking news, but most of it really isn’t breaking, it’s just news. I’m glad I lived in the time I lived in and did it in the time I did it. I don’t envy the comics doing it now, the men and women, because you’re all basically doing the same joke. I love Samantha Bee, I love [Stephen] Colbert, I love Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy Kimmel is good, Conan [O’Brien] is fun. But I mean when the president is cavorting with porn stars, how do you make that funnier? It’s hilarious.
With the country as divided as it is, do you see a role for comedy?
Yeah, it’s the same role it’s always had. I think people want to be entertained. When I do a show, I like to sort of make fun of both sides, so there’s something there for everybody. I don’t think anybody is particularly interested in my personal opinion. I mean, if I go to a musical performance, and the guy says, ‘I’m not going to sing tonight, I’d like to talk about — ,’ hey, it’s not what I paid for. It’s supposed to get you away from the things of the world.
You hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner four times. What’s your reaction to the reaction to Michelle Wolf’s performance?
I think she’s great, and she’s very funny. It’s very funny to me that a comedian is held to a greater standard [on language] than the president of the United States. You can’t really win at the correspondents’ dinner. You come out and you’re just funny, then they attack you for not being vicious enough. And if you’re too vicious, then they’ll attack you for going over the line.
I’m sure you’re asked this all the time, but why are you still working the road? You could play with your cars and motorcycles all day long if you wanted to.
Well, I’m a huge believer in low self-esteem. The only [people] with high self-esteem are criminals and actors. To me, you’re only as good as your last joke. Plus, it’s fun. I love to write jokes, and to tell them. I played Philly when I couldn’t get arrested a million times, and it’s fun to come back and play there.
Have you seen Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here, about the L.A. comedy club scene in the 1970s?
I have. I think everybody in it is very good, but where’s the joy? We loved being young comics. I mean, everybody [on the show] is so depressed. Are there petty jealousies? Sure, there are. But when I did my first Tonight Show [appearance in 1977], Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld and all those guys came, and if you play my first Tonight Show, you hear Robin laughing in the back. When Robin did his first Tonight Show, I went with him. When Jerry did his first Tonight Show, I went with him. We all kind of supported one another. Steve Martin brought Johnny Carson in to see me. It’s a pretty nice fraternity. Of course, there were a few people who were crazy, who had problems. But for the most part, it was a wonderful time.
Do you have any particular memories of playing Philly?
I played Grandma Minnie’s, the Main Point in Bryn Mawr. I was at Valley Forge with Perry Como one time — I played Valley Forge with everybody — and I had my wife, Mavis, with me. We weren’t married. Perry said, ‘I like that girl. What’s going on with her?’ I said, ‘We’re probably going to get married.’ He said, ‘When you going to get married?’ I said, ‘As soon as I get some money.’ He took out two grand and he said, ‘Here. Go marry her.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ And I did. And that was 38 years ago.
An Evening With Jay Leno. 8 p.m. May 19, Academy of Music. Tickets: $29-$139. Information: www.kimmelcenter.org