Late night legend Leno speaks to Voice

Originally published in the October 8, 2010 issue

A lot of thoughts might come to mind when someone mentions Jay Leno – “Tonight Show” host, his love for classic cars, his past late-night feuds. But long before he schmoozed with celebrities on a nightly basis, he made a name for himself in the stand-up world, one that continues today.

Though it was a requirement to not discuss the Conan, Letterman or the former “Jay Leno Show” situations, Leno did talk about his stand-up career, one that constantly keeps him on-the-go.

“I’m on the road 160 days a year,” Leno said during a phone interview last week. “I’m not one of those guys that goes to a new town, ‘Oh I got to try this restaurant, I have to go here.’”

While the audience at his Oct. 16 show in the new arena may be different from typical “The Tonight Show” viewers or the audience of his stand-up show in Las Vegas, adapting to fit is not that challenging.

“It’s not a big difference, I play all types of places,” Leno said. “It’s not what you do, it’s what you don’t do. You have to know your audience.”

The slight differences between living the stand-up life and hosting a show add a little variety in his world, and the balance between the two has become a requirement.

“When you do stand-up, you do the same stuff in a different place every day, But when I’m on the show, I get to go home and do different stuff in the same place every day,” he said. “I like having both [the show and the stand-up] and not doing one exclusively.”

Even after years on television, for Leno, stand-up is what defines him.

“I consider myself a stand-up comedian who got to do a TV show,” he said.

But hosting the most-watched late-night talk show has its benefits, like the amount of people he gets to interact with and meet. Most might think meeting A-List celebrities is cool, but Leno said the political side is much more rewarding.

“I’m sort of a fan of politics. It’s interesting to meet people when they were mayors or senators or governors, and to see them become the president,” Leno said. “As someone who flunked social studies, hanging with the president is pretty cool.”

After being in the profession for so many years, Leno admits he doesn’t get nervous, but he understands why others do.

“The stage is not a normal place to be. If you don’t do it frequently, it seems unnatural,” he said. “If you haven’t worked in five months, then you might get stage fright.  If you do it every day, there’s no difference.”

He likened the stand-up comedy circuit to a marathon – something you just can’t just pick up and start doing.

“You need to go out and work, you work little clubs around Los Angeles to get practice, to get comfortable,” he said. “I still go out there and do that.”

Coming up with material for the show and his act all depends on what is going on in the world, and certain stories are able to transcend the usual shelf life of a joke.

“The way most comedians come up with material, you just keep adding material and subtracting material. Every day you add new material, depending on what’s going on,” Leno said. “Some stories have a really short shelf life, whatever it may be, you love one to stick around and last longer.”

For those attending the show during homecoming weekend, Leno’s advice for the audience is simple.

“Just show up and have a good time,” he said.