Jay Leno talks Howard Stern, Letterman, and retirement

Jay Leno has had one heckuva year
courtesy of the artist

Tonight Show host Jay Leno gave an exclusive interview to City Pages in advance of his March 12 standup comedy gigs at Mystic Lake Casino. In the wide-ranging Q & A, Leno pooh-poohs David Letterman's recent revelation that he plans to retire in two years, and fires back at Howard Stern for accusations of stealing comedic material.

City Pages: How's it going?

Jay Leno: Eh, you know, tell a few jokes, try to make a living.

CP: That's what you do, I guess.

Leno: That's it.

CP: You've got a show coming up at Mystic Lake at March 12?

Leno: Yeah, a couple shows, it's a nice room, I like playing there. I've played there many times.

CP: Is this part of a larger tour?

Leno: I've been on the road since I was 19. I do about 160 dates a year. I'm on the road two to three days a week. I was in Vegas this weekend, and I've got a couple things this weekend in Florida, then Oklahoma, and then you guys.

CP: You're definitely known for your work ethic.

Leno: Well, you know what it is, it's like saying, "I don't want to train every day, I just want to run marathons." And you can't just run marathons, you have to run every day. And when you're trying to keep an hour and a half, two hours of material in your head every day, it's not like a song, you have to do it in front of an audience.

The stage is not a normal place to be, so if you do it all the time, it becomes second nature. But if you go two weeks, or a month, you get on stage, you find yourself getting thrown. It's just something you have to do. All the comics I know, Seinfeld and those guys, they just work all the time. Sometimes it's a big venue, but on Sundays I work a little place called the Comedy and Magic Club at Hermosa Beach, it's only 150 seats but I do it every week just to break in new material.

I was one of those kids who learned by repetition. You just learn to do it and do it until it becomes second nature. When I was starting out as a comic we would always try to do the routine at home and write a letter with your other hand, because that's kind of what has to happen, because when you're on stage, there's always something, someone's throwing a shot glass or something, so you've got to not get distracted. So you've got to work all the time.

I have to say, it's still fun. I did it for a long time, you know, opening for Tom Jones, you know, "You suck, bring Tom out!", and you go through all those things. In Vegas they used to have the dinner shows, and your job was literally to stay on stage until all the plates were cleared off, so you'd be out there: "So anyway..." ka-klang, ka-klang! and the bus boys would come and they'd, you know, literally pull the tablecloths into one of those big cups, and then when the tables were clear, you'd say, "Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Jones!" or whoever.

So the idea that you get on stage now and there are actually people who want to see you...

CP: That's still a novelty?

Leno: Well yeah, I have to admit it is.

CP: So do you find, traveling all over, that there are regional differences in what people will laugh at?

Leno: You know, you used to see that years ago. Everybody has access to the internet. I mean, there's nothing funnier to me than when you're in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, and people are saying, "Hey, what do you think the grosses will be this week for the Potter film?" Well, I don't know, I'm not a movie guy. So unless you're talking about riding the subway, or things that are really indicative of New York or L.A., there's really not that much difference.

CP: I was watching that Super Bowl ad that you did last year with David Letterman and Oprah, and I was wondering what you thought of the Super Bowl ads this year.

Leno: You know, I was working, actually. I work on Sunday, I tend to tape it. This wasn't really a good year for ads. I thought the Darth Vader one, any other year, it would have just been a nice ad, it wouldn't have been the standout. The greatest Super Bowl ad, it only aired once and everyone still remembers it, it was Apple Computer with the big screen and the girl throws the thing at it.

CP: Speaking of Letterman, I wondered if you saw that he announced earlier this month that he's actually thinking of retiring in a couple of years.

Leno: No, first of all, he did not announce.... I've known Dave a long time, and any time you ask him, "What are you gonna..." "I'll do this for a couple more years." I think Dave said that in 1984. First of all, it doesn't really concern me, whatever Dave wants to do. But I don't know; I mean, I've heard that before. We live in an era when people jump on every statement. If you asked me, "How long..." Well, I don't know—

CP: That was going to be my next question.

Leno: Same answer: I don't know. You do it until you don't do it anymore, I guess.

CP: I wanted to ask you, in that same show where Letterman made the announcement, he had Howard Stern on—

Leno: I didn't see the show, but go ahead.

CP: All right, the point is, Howard Stern was giving you a certain amount of grief.

Leno: Yeah, fine, welcome to show business.

CP: He says you stole Jaywalking from his show, and the Terry Bradshaw chicken Super Bowl thing. What do you say to that?

Leno: Well first of all, if you see, there's a special called Jay Leno American Dream Special. I taped it in 1984. We did a segment called Jaywalking, where I go out and talk to people on the street.

First of all, I did not invent that. Steve Allen was probably the first person on TV to do it, but people in radio did it, the New York Post did the "man on the street" interview.

This is something that gets terribly overblown. I know a couple weeks ago Conan was accused of taking a piece from Kimmel; he didn't. It was Sarah Palin hunting, and they showed her aiming a gun, and I think every comic in America did Sarah Palin killing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And the fact that two shows happened to have a similar idea, you don't have to see every show. It doesn't mean anyone necessarily stole it.

I've never had a reputation for taking other people's material. But that's Howard's thing, if he can get any traction with it—good luck. Let me know if any other comics agree with him, and then we'll deal with it. But Howard is Howard, that's what he does; the idea is you try to pick a fight with somebody and then they fight with you back in the media. And I don't do that, I just ignore him, and it's fine, he can do whatever he wants.

CP: What do you like to do in Minneapolis?

Leno: The first time I was in Minneapolis, it was Shinders bookstore, this is 25 years ago. They've got the car section, the motorcycle section, and then they've got the porno section. So I'm in there one day, and I'm like, wow, that guy looks like Ed Bradley. And I walk over there, and it is Ed Bradley. And Ed Bradley was in town talking to Andrea Dworkin, a feminist against pornography. He was in Shinders bookstore in the porno section, you know, "Magazines such as this! Blah blah blah." So I go, okay, that looks like Ed Bradley. So about a month later, I'm home, 60 Minutes is on, you see Ed Bradley, and he says, "We're here in Shinders Bookstore, pornography is demeaning to women!" and then in the corner you see me walk in, and it looks like I'm in the porno section. I didn't realize he was filming, but now I look like a creepy guy in the background.

CP: I think that Shinders is no more.

Leno: No, I think it's gone. Market Bar-B-Que is still there though, right?

CP: Yeah, it is. So are you going to be here for a day or two this time?

Leno: No, I come home every night. That's just how you stay married, okay? Welcome to show business. I haven't spent a night in Vegas in 25 years. I fly home every night and go to work every day. Plus I have to come back here to do the show.

CP: Okay, so anything special that the people coming out to the show should be looking out for?

Leno: No. I mean it's just standup comedy. I mean I hope people like the show. At this point people kind of know what you do, and that's that, you know? 

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