What better place to interview Jay Leno — comedian, longtime host of The Tonight Show and renowned car enthusiast — than from the waiting room of an auto repair shop? I had my questions ready in anticipation of his May 2 stand-up show at The Palace Theatre in Stamford, but first I had to answer a few myself. Leno started questioning me like he was the mechanic who was about to replace the front wheel bearings on my Chevy Silverado. After his free diagnostic service, we switched gears back to him.
When paparazzi run up to you on the street and shove a camera in your face, do you make a point to go and check to see what they ended up doing with the footage?
No, I don’t. Because you never know who it is. Sometimes it’s just a regular person with a camera. They don’t identify themselves.
How often does that happen to you?
Anytime you go to New York, if you do any TV show, they’re always out front. Any theater you go to. Always at the airport. I was in Shanghai and I got back Monday and as soon as I get off the plane some TMZ guy says, “Jay, what do you think of … ?” I was in Shanghai, I don’t know.
When you were hosting The Tonight Show, was there a certain type of guest who was more difficult to interview than others?
The best guests are usually the character actors that are the second guest. A guy who’s second or third lead on a show, or a standout small part in a movie. Because they understand what the business is about. They’ve been around a long time. They know how hard they have to work. They know they gotta come up with something. So they really try a lot harder. I remember years ago, long time ago, I was probably guest-hosting, I had John Goodman on. He had just been in one movie but I thought he was such an unusual character, and he was funny and he had great stories. Those are the ones that are really good. The hardest, a lot of times, are reality-star people, because I don’t care about them. Or the stars that really don’t want to be there, or the agent says they have to go right after their spot. They can’t stay on the couch? “No, no, they have an important engagement.” Then the show ends and they’re still backstage stalking. Really? But the agent thinks that looks important.
What do you remember about your first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1977?
That was the show that made you. You’re a little nervous and it’s exciting and it’s great. The Tonight Show is kinda like your first girlfriend. You’re all excited, it happens very quickly, it’s over. What happened? Oh, I’d like to do this again. You don’t really quite know. Oh, what was that?
I read that you used to ask to go on after Richard Pryor at the Comedy Store. Is that something you wanted to do or felt like you needed to do to get better?
Comedians tend to be a little lazy. You tend to go the path of least resistance. Comedians tend to go, “Oh, I like to work this club because I do well there.” But to me, you want to go to places where you don’t do well. That’s how you get better. I thought I had an hour of material. Then I would go to the Comedy Store and I would ask Mitzi [Shore], “Can I go on after Richie?” Because Richie was breaking in his Live on the Sunset Strip material. He was doing a film of his concert. So he was killing every night. People would be screaming, literally falling down in the aisles laughing. And he would do a solid hour — just bang bang bang! And then I would get up there and I found out really quickly what was funny and what wasn’t.
Your love of cars and your collection is well documented. When you’re out for a joyride, what do you find yourself thinking about?
That’s usually when I write material. Because you can talk to yourself, and you can talk it out in a car. If you’re in your house and you’re talking — “Honey, did you call me?” — “No, I’m just working out a piece of material.” So driving around either in a car or on a motorcycle is just a great way to do that, to just get your set together.
It’s not ideal to have a car just sitting there for a long period of time. If you have 180 cars, how do you make sure every car gets the attention that it needs?
OK, this is a first-world problem. It’s not really a problem most people have. I don’t think you get a lot of sympathy. Oh, I have so many cars I can’t drive them all. Oh, poor Jay. Cars can sit for a month or two. You’re enclosed, you’re in California, there’s no humidity, no freezing cold at night and hot during the day, there’s not big temperature changes. For example, like your wheel bearings in Connecticut. You’re going through winter, you’ve got ice and salt and snow and all that stuff getting in the wheel bearings and causing them to deteriorate. You don’t have that problem in California.
May 2 at 8 p.m.
The Palace Theatre, Stamford