Leno: Staying out of the pool and in the driver’s seat

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I have a pool that I’ve never been in. At least not since I got The Tonight Show, and that was 30 years ago. I get near the pool, and then I hear that voice in my head, that Boston voice: “Really?” it says. “You got nuthin’ else to do, Mr. Big Shot, than sit in that pool? You’re just gonna sit in it? There’s nuthin’ else you could be doing?” And I can’t bring myself to get in the pool.

I grew up in that era when parents told their kids, “If you can’t find something to do, I’ll find something for you!” I’ve always been that way, which is why I’m doing two shows right now instead of sitting in the pool. Jay Leno’s Garage is on YouTube and is mostly about cars, how they work, their stories, the people who fix them and take care of them. And then I do a show for CNBC, which is kind of like a rolling Tonight Show. We have celebrities with a passion like Jerry Seinfeld or Tim Allen, and also celebrities who maybe have more of a passing interest in cars, but they’re game for doing bits like “This Is Your Automotive Life,” where they have to guess a car from their life by the sound of its horn. It’s corny but fun.

Britney Spears Jay Leno Tonight Show
Jay hosted pop superstar Britney Spears at a taping of The Tonight Show in Burbank, CA, February 2002. LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP via Getty Images

I did 4613 episodes of The Tonight Show, five shows a week for 22 seasons. It was a perfect job for someone who is always worried that there must be something more important to do, because there always was. Like reading all the books and watching all the movies that the celebrities were in. I didn’t have staff do it because celebrities like it when you find one thing, a phrase or a scene, that only someone who has read the book or seen the movie would ask about. Let me tell you, I have seen every bad movie. Eat Pray Love—I couldn’t get through it. There were 12 minutes of jokes to write every day, and the news doesn’t change that much. And we had to watch all the other shows to make sure—aw, jeez—Letterman did that joke, can’t do it.

But then the pay was pretty good. When they called me in to tell me I was through, I didn’t argue. There comes a point in your life where you shouldn’t have to know all of Jay-Z’s music. When you’re 40 and you’re flirting with a 26-year-old actress, I guess it can be sexy. When you’re 65, you’re just a creepy old guy. Plus, you don’t even relate. I was watching TV not long ago and a Tide commercial came on. Two women were arguing about whether one would wear a shirt, and I was wonder-ing, “Why is this one yelling at the other one?” Then I realized, oooh, she’s the mom! The mom was like 38 and the daughter was maybe 18, but they looked the same age to me! Because I’m so old now, I can’t tell anymore.

I am a huge believer in low self-esteem. It’s the key to success, because if you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’ll listen and you’ll read the room. So I left, and I do car shows now because I learned a long time ago that if you make your hobby your job, it’s not a job—it’s just fun. The car shows are different from The Tonight Show because, unlike interviewing celebrities, I already know what I’m going to say about it, and I don’t have to pretend to flatter anyone. We don’t have any writers. The producer and I just discuss interesting themes, like “the outdoors,” or “concept cars.” It’s all ad-libbed. We just go out with a camera and shoot. When you have someone like Kevin Hart, it’s just two comics together riffing. We’ll shoot 40 minutes and use seven.

Wheels fall off—literally—and cars have caught fire. I was in Bob Riggle’s Hurst Hemi Under Glass when it rolled several times. People think it’s all planned. It isn’t. My favorite is the people who say, “Mr. Leno, I know that Tesla pays you a lot of money to say these things.” No, I don’t take any money. It’s all my own opinion.

Well, what would I be doing on a Saturday anyway? I go to where the cars are, to the cars and coffees or the local shows. Might as well get paid for it, at least until people come with sticks and pitchforks and yell at me to get off the stage. Then I guess I’ll finally get in the pool.

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