Jay Leno is one busy man. “The Tonight Show” keeps him tied up most weeks, but then he fills out his schedule with about 160 stand-up dates around the country each year. Exhausting? It seems like it, but Leno, 62, sounds as if he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Following is a Q&A with Leno who performs standup Friday at the Silver Legacy Resort Casino.
Question: On top of your TV work, 160 dates a year sounds like a lot. Does your wife ever mind?
Answer: (Laughing) It comes up occasionally.
Q: So why work so hard?
A: If you’re going to be a runner, you can’t just run the marathon. It’s different for musicians. A musician can go into the studio for a year and come out with an album. Comics can’t do that.
Q: Is it still fun?
A: It is fun. If someone walks by your desk and tells a funny joke, you can’t wait to repeat that joke to each person that comes by your desk. Essentially, that’s all it is.
Q: How does it compare with working on TV?
A: When you work in television, you’ll get handed little slips of paper that say things like, “We’re not doing well with immature boys between the ages of 11 and 18.” You never quite know where you are. On the road, you also learn that what’s really funny in New York and LA might be a little smart-ass in other parts of the country. When (George W.) Bush was president, I would never directly make fun. It wouldn’t fly in the rest of the country. It’s seen as disrespectful.
Q: Can you take a break from reading news, or do you have to stay on top of it?
A: The real trick to this is not knowing more than somebody else, but knowing exactly what everybody else knows. Honestly, once you get below secretary of State, most people in the real world don’t know (who that is). When you go to a nightclub, people are on vacation. They are not up on what happened today. They know Romney is the Republican and Obama is the Democrat. They have the basics. And most times with comedy, you don’t change anybody’s mind. My thing is not to have a political opinion; it’s to get a laugh.
Q: How does “The Tonight Show” compare with doing stand-up?
A: I have people come and go, “You did 90 minutes with no notes!” I’ve had people come and say they thought I’d have a couch on stage, because that’s what they see on TV. The juxtaposition with TV is that you watch the news, write a joke that day, do it on TV and then you can never really do it again. In stand-up, you come up with a routine on Monday and it’s kind of funny. Tuesday, it’s better, and then by Friday you’ve really honed it.
Q: How do you stay relatable to the public? If you do a joke about your car collection, most audiences wouldn’t relate.
A: It’s easy if everybody’s on the same plane. (Last year one of the top stories was) how Mark Zuckerberg got married. So, Zuckerberg is married. How does this work, because the ring is supposed to be equal to about three months’ salary? That’s about $15 billion: Do you go to Zales at the mall and see what they have? (Laughing) See? That’s easily relatable.
Q: So there’s never a shortage of things to talk about?
A: There’s a plethora of material. The best stories in the world are when drunken pilots get caught before the plane takes off. Of course, the worst story is when the plane crashes and somebody dies. And you have to keep things local. People won’t watch the Supreme Court on C-SPAN, but they’ll watch “Judge Judy” because they know about having a barking dog in the neighborhood.
Q: You’re known as a clean comic.
A: I’m not putting down obscenity. Everybody has a hook. I’m not offended by it, but I’m kind of bored by it. It’s kind of lazy. Bob Newhart told me this story about how he saw a hot comedian at the time. The comic comes out and goes, “Hello, where are you from?” A guy says, “Phoenix.” The comic goes “(Expletive) Phoenix!” Newhart goes, “What did I miss?” That always makes me laugh. I’m always amazed at what passes for edgy.
Q: Did you ever work dirty?
A: When I was a young comic, I would occasionally work dirty, but I was never dirty enough to be a dirty comic, so why not work clean?
Q: Who makes you laugh now?
A: Oh, a lot of people. Jerry Seinfeld, Daniel Tosh, Kathleen Madigan, Mario Joyner. There’s tons of really funny comics out there.
Q: I kept hearing your name come up on “Celebrity Apprentice,” because you helped out Arsenio Hall.
A: Arsenio’s a friend, and comics help other comics out. Honestly, it’s a pretty nice business. Most comedians will actually get more work from other comedians than from an agent or a booker, especially when they’re starting out. People like Steve Martin and Richie Pryor were really helpful to me when I was starting out.