Jay Leno is still a road dog. When the former Tonight Show host isn’t in Southern California revving up one of his 181 cars or 133 motorcycles, he’s probably en route to another stand-up gig. The 67-year-old is crisscrossing the country to perform more than 200 shows this year, including an April 6 date at the State Theatre. “It’s fun being able to come up with stuff on the road and talk about it,” says Leno, calling from Burbank, California during a break in filming season four of his CNBC show Jay Leno’s Garage. “You can’t enjoy comedy on an iPhone. I will come to where you are because I like the shared experience of it.” Here’s an excerpt from our conversation with the comedian about political humor, talk shows and memorable venues.
Q: You’ve been doing stand-up since your teens. What has changed over the years?
A: When I first started, people would say, “Hey, my girlfriend really likes you.” Then they would say, “My mother really likes you.” Now they say, “My grandmother really likes you.” When you’re young it’s about going out and pounding jokes. Now, I’m really more comfortable telling stories.
Q: You did 4,610 episodes of The Tonight Show. Do you miss it?
A: No, I don’t miss it. It’s ugly now. Everything [in politics] is anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-gay. I did silly stuff about [Bill] Clinton being horny and [George W.] Bush being dumb. Now everything is a punch in the face. There’s no subtle stuff anymore. In the old days, people watched the talk shows to get away from the late night news. Now the talk shows are the news.
Q: Do you have a favorite talk show host?
A: I like Seth [Meyers], Jimmy [Fallon], [Jimmy] Kimmel and [Stephen] Colbert…but you’re stuck with the same topic every night. What Trump actually does used to be a punchline. I watch Jimmy Fallon get eviscerated for doing light stuff. I like topical stuff as much as the next person, but I don’t want to be a Republican comedian or a Democratic comedian.
Q: What is the strangest place you worked when you started out?
A: In the early days I once worked a place called the Mineshaft. It was a strip club with a stage, but no spotlight. The guys in the audience had miner’s hats with lights on them. The men would shine the lights on the women but [the lights] would occasionally hit me in the face. I remember doing other shows for two or three people…but it was fun.
Q: You own everything from steam cars to turbine cars to a motorcycle powered by a helicopter engine. What was your first car?
A: It was a 1934 Ford truck I bought for $350 when I was 14. I think it’s still somewhere in New England. Cars have always been my hobby and that’s why I enjoy [Jay Leno’s Garage]. We do have some celebrities on but there are no agents, no press people. It’s just about people and their vehicles. I love doing something that’s not the Tonight Show.