Jay Leno has every excuse to play the celebrity card.
He hosted “The Tonight Show” for 22 years and spent time before, in the middle and after as one of the country’s premier stand-up comics.
Listen to his interview on the “Late Night Playset” podcast, though, and you’ll hear a pragmatist who never took his fame, or himself, too seriously.
Call it the secret of his success.
“You’re only as good as your last joke,” Leno told co-hosts J. and Nicole Ryan as part of their free-wheeling banter.
Leno reminisced about his early days in comedy, his matter-of-fact approach to “The Tonight Show” and his ultimate frenemy, fellow late night icon David Letterman.
Leno frequently appeared on the latter’s show, sometimes bringing a bag brimming with hoagies … which he devoured on air.
“That would drive him nuts,” Leno said with a smile, noting how the two clicked comedically and understood each other’s rhythms. “There was always jokes in between the jokes.”
As the “Tonight Show” host, Leno deferred to the show’s producer and creative elements. He also kept up his steady stand-up career while collecting millions for taking the baton from Johnny Carson.
He described his leadership approach as low-key and the very opposite of what got Ellen DeGeneres in so much trouble – even if he didn’t mention the fellow talker by name. Leno rarely takes political sides and isn’t one to engage in needless skirmishes.
“I never shut the door (to my office),” he said.
His “Tonight Show” tenure is the stuff of legends, but the powers that be made it less than paradise behind the scenes. It’s a notion he shared without anger or cynicism.
It’s just a business, after all.
“They’re always looking to replace you at some point,” he said of his “Tonight Show” tenure, noting NBC attempted just that a year into his time behind the desk. Of course, it happened again years later with the failed Conan O’Brien experiment, and, later, when Jimmy Fallon took over for good in 2014.
Leno sounded far less comfortable recalling his box office bust, the 1989 comedy “Collision Course” with Pat Morita, a film he quickly slammed as “terrible.”
Making movies, he said, doesn’t jibe with his comedy hungers.
“I like the immediacy of doing stand up,” said Leno, adding he performed stand-up appearances during the shooting of the film and that the late Morita once worked the comedy circuit as the self-described “Hip Nip,” a racial slur that wouldn’t fly today.
FAST FACT: Jay Leno made a fortune as the long-running “Tonight Show” host, but he took a frugal approach to his salary. “When I got ‘The Tonight Show,’ I always made sure I did 150 [comedy show] gigs a year so I never had to touch the principal,” Leno said. “I’ve never touched a dime of my ‘Tonight Show’ money. Ever.”
Leno may be one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood, but at the start of his stand-up career he just wanted a place to sling jokes. He did that with a clever ruse he played repeatedly around Boston clubs. He would slap a $50 bill down in Boston bars and ask to play a set for the crowd.
“If I do bad you keep the $50, and if I do good I get the $50 back,” he said of his sales pitch.
It only got better from there, in part because of his endless hustle. He suffers from dyslexia, and his mother often warned him he’d have to work twice as hard as everyone else to overcome that hurdle. He did that, and then some.
“I could always make a living being a comedian,” he said.
That wasn’t always a sure thing, though. Nor was a high school education. He recalled how a school counselor suggested his mother take him out of school prematurely, thinking he was better served elsewhere.
“Education isn’t for everyone,” the man told his mother.