Jay Leno is best known as the longtime host of “The Tonight Show” but he’s also one of the country’s most gifted comedians, having continued to perform around the country over the last four decades — even when serving his late-night tenure.
Known as a true “road warrior” on the comic circuit, Leno has kept himself plenty busy since retiring from the talk show, hosting “Jay Leno’s Garage” on CNBC, writing children’s books and guest starring regularly on “Last Man Standing.”
On May 2, the late-night legend will be delivering his stand-up in Stamford at the Palace Theatre.
Keith Loria: You’ve been doing stand-up for more than 40 years. What can those coming to your show expect?
Jay Leno: People know me and they know what to expect. I’m not someone who beats people to death with my political views. It’s just a straight-up comedy show. When I go to see a performer, I don’t want to hear a speech one way or the other. I was a stand-up comedian before I got ‘The Tonight Show’ and continued doing it all through that time. I like the act of performing in front of a live audience.
KL: What is it about that live audience?
JL: When you’re on TV, you don’t really know if it’s funny. There’s applause, and people will tell you it’s funny, but a guy hit a button for that applause so you don’t know if it was really funny. It’s a big difference. People are buying tickets so it better be funny. I’m not a guy that likes to do Netflix specials or HBO specials. If you like what I do, I’ll come to where you are and do it for you.
KL: So you’re not interested in a special? Why?
JL: You know, a lot of times they do these specials, and you do it once and then you get checks for the rest of the year as people watch it. I just prefer to go to each place to do it. It’s a bit like Groundhog’s Day. You do the same thing every night to keep honing it and making it sharper and better.
KL: You mentioned “honing” the set; how do you know what to keep and what to cut?
JL: For years, when I was at The Comedy Store, this is back when Richard Pryor was in his heyday and Richie was the hottest comic who probably ever lived. He would do his hour and he would blow the house out. I mean, people would just be screaming, laughing and nobody wanted to follow him. And I said, well, ‘Let me do it,’ because I could find out if my stuff’s really funny. I realized I didn’t have 40 minutes; I had about 18 minutes and I got rid of everything that wasn’t funny, and I made it tighter and tighter. You have to continue working it.
KL: You’ve been at this for more than 40 years now. Does it get easier to come up with material?
JL: I always tell people there’s nothing harder than writing jokes. When you stand on TV and you tell a joke, that’s the only thing happening on the network at that time. So, it better be funny. When I would go on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” I didn’t go on as a guest. I wanted to do stand-up and I always did. I’d come out and I would tell jokes and then I’d sit down for a minute. I didn’t want to be some sort of elder statesmen just giving my opinion.
KL: Do you miss doing “The Tonight Show”?
JL: I did “The Tonight Show” for 22 years and that was great. But the climate now is just different. We live in this era where if people don’t like your politics, they don’t watch your show. Plus, everyone is doing the same joke. It’s Trump every night on every show. I am not a fan but God bless them, It’s hard to write the same version of the same joke every night. It’s more fun when you have an affection for the people. I did it when Bush was dumb and Clinton was horny, so it was different. Now, you’re either on one side or the other, and it’s tricky.