No matter what you may think of Jay Leno’s style of humor, one thing is clear: The guy’s got staying power, and he's kept his nose clean. And that counts for something. Leno's career as a standup comedian has spanned four decades and included, of course, a nearly 20-year run as the host of the Tonight Show. But even after passing the torch to Jimmy Fallon one year ago this month, he’s still at it, playing rooms across the country, including a stop tonight at Snoqualmie Casino.
What do you make of the transition that we’re going through with late night television show? Dave’s retiring soon, and you’re out of the game. There’s been a real passing of the torch.
I guess so, until you realize nobody really cares. I did a corporate date a couple months ago, and it was a Wednesday. I was in Dallas or somewhere. And this guy comes backstage and says, “Hey, I really enjoyed the show. I guess you guys have a rerun tonight?” And I said, “What?” He said, “Do you have a rerun tonight?” “No. I left the show in February.” He goes, “Oh, I don’t really get a chance to watch it. I’m sorry.” I wasn’t insulted, but it made me laugh. When you live in this insular world of TV and ratings and numbers, you tend to think the world revolves around it. But then you realize that most people don’t care. It doesn’t mean anything.
Maybe. I grew up with you and David Letterman as the voices of late night. So now that we're transitioning to Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert, it feels like a new era.
It certainly is a new era. I think it’ll be a totally new era when you see some females, some African Americans, some Hispanics. [Right now] it’s just replacing one white guy with another white guy. So I don’t know if that symbolizes an era change so much. I think Jimmy has brought a different dynamic to it, with the music and the parody skits that go viral and that neither Dave or I did.
What’s it been like to transition back to life on the road?
I was on the road a minimum two to three days a week when I was doing the Tonight Show. So now I just have a little more time to myself. I was a standup comedian who became a talk show host. So to me, do I prefer the standup? Oh yeah. Look, I enjoyed doing the Tonight Show, it was great fun. But it was one of those jobs where you think, “How long is this going to last?” So you always have your other job ready to go in case it doesn’t work out. And I was lucky it went for 22 years, but now I’m back in my regular job.
How does a Seattle crowd differ from a Boston crowd or a Chicago crowd?
You know, the colder it is and the more inclement the weather is, the smarter the audience is. When you go to Seattle, you see things you don’t see in warmer climates, like book stores. Seattle has a lot of great, old bookstores you can browse in. New York doesn’t really have book stores anymore, except Barnes and Noble, because the rents are so high. So the fun thing is you drive around Seattle and you’ll find a little hole in the wall. The last time I was there, I can’t remember the name of the book store, but I found some great old manuals for steam engines and machinery from the ’20s, ’30s, late teens.
Wait, is that something you were specifically shopping for?
Well, I’m always looking for that. The great thing about Seattle is that you have a lot of engineers. And engineers like engineering stuff. And a lot of engineers take up antique watch repair, old steam engines, old cars, old machinery. So you find a lot of great old books like that up in that area.
Do you get out a lot in the cities you’re in? It sounds like you do.
Well, a little bit. I mean, usually I’m in a different place every day. So you land at four and you go to the hotel, and you change and you do the show at eight. And I try to fly home every night. But if I can’t and I end up staying over, then I experience [the city] a little bit. By this time, most towns that I go to, there’s some old car, motorcycle, farm implement guys that I’ll get together with.
What is it you like so much about working on old machines?
The reason I like to work on cars and motorcycles and machinery is, comedy is subjective. One person thinks you’re hilarious, and one person thinks you suck. And they’re both correct. Because if a guy didn’t laugh, you didn’t make him laugh. So to him, you suck. But when you take something that’s broken and you fix it, no one can say the engine isn’t running. There’s no debate. No one can say you didn’t fix it.
Feb 20, Snoqualmie Casino, Sold Out