Jay Leno, who recently stepped down as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” after a 22-year run, is back in a familiar place — the road, playing stand-up dates around the country.
“Before I had ‘The Tonight Show,’ I was on the road a lot,” says Leno, who appears 9 p.m. Friday, April 25, at Caesars Atlantic City. “When I got ‘The Tonight Show,’ I was on the road two or three days a week. Somehow I’m back on the road again.”
The two-time Emmy winner seems at peace with his “Tonight Show” run really being over. Leno exited “The Tonight Show” for the first time in 2009, when Conan O’Brien was named as his successor, and then amid some controversy got the chance to return after audiences didn’t take to O’Brien as much as NBC would have hoped.
“I’m kind of old school — you put your 20 years in and get out,” Leno says. “Seventeen years didn’t seem like the right time to get out of there, the way the whole thing went down, obviously. So we came back and finished up and we were still No. 1, so it worked out OK.”
Having taken the reins from the iconic Johnny Carson and now facing competition from a younger generation of hosts, including Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert, Leno was finally ready to hand off the show to Jimmy Fallon in February.
“It’s the nature of the beast and how the franchise stays current,” Leno says. “You reach a point where you’re talking to the 22-year-old super model. You’re now the creepy old guy. It’s just what happens. Music changes, social media — all these new things. You go, ‘OK, I’m not current with this. This is not what I do.’”
With Leno’s longtime rival David Letterman planning to exit his “Late Show” in 2015, and Colbert waiting in the wings, a new late-night talk show chapter has truly begun.
“I really love Jimmy Fallon. He’s really talented,” Leno says. “When I see him do his Tom Petty impression, I say ‘I can’t do that. That’s not what I do.’ I do something else. My era is over. I’m thrilled for him. I couldn’t be happier.”
Having given up the desk — and all the responsibilities that came with it — Leno is relishing the chance to focus on his act.
“With ‘The Tonight Show,’ you do different jokes in the same place every night,” he says. “When you’re on the road, you do the same jokes in a different place every night. On ‘The Tonight Show,’ as soon as you finish a joke, you say, ‘I could have done it better. I wish I had a chance to work on that, I didn’t really flush it out.’”
On the road, “If I try it out on Monday, then Tuesday I can’t wait to get to that part of my act where I tweak the joke and bring it out a little more.”
Another big difference is with politics. Being topical on “The Tonight Show” meant mocking politicians. However, that kind of humor doesn’t necessarily play in a casino showroom.
“People are there to have a good time,” Leno says. “Most will say they haven’t read a paper for a week. What happened to Chris Christie? Was there a bridge thing?
“Yeah,” Leno says, sarcastically, “there was a whole big deal going on there.”
These kinds of nuances matter to Leno, who seems to enjoy tinkering with his act the same way he might tear apart the engine of one of the 900 or so cars in his collection. (By the way, he’s still making clips for his “Jay’s Garage” series, which has its own channel on YouTube.)
“I listen to comedy the way other people listen to music,” he says. “I like the rhythm, I like the syntax, I like the set-up.”
For Leno, his career now is about being in the moment.
“I don’t do (stand-up) videos, I never put out a CD,” he says. “If people want to hear what I do, I’ll come to your place and I’ll do it for you. This way I’ll know I have your attention and I can do it for you.”
Leno: Copycat jokes are usually coincidence
When you’re mining the news for laughs, it’s inevitable that some jokes will have similar punchlines as those on rival programs, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s stealing material, according to former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno.
“This has happened to me, it’s happened to Conan (O’Brien), and it’s happened to (Jimmy) Kimmel, pictured, — you have a bunch of comedy writers all writing jokes for these shows,” Leno says. “Some story will hit the news and you have two or three comedians do a similar joke. In the old days, you did a similar joke. Now someone stole it — every joke is stolen.”
Leno’s way of avoiding such accusations was to monitor his rivals’ monologues.
“I don’t believe Conan or Kimmel or anybody else takes jokes from other late-night hosts. When you have a joke like (Gov.) Chris Christie and the bridge scandal, there are only so many variations of that you can do.”