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Jay Talking

Famous people are often boring, and Jay Leno is very, very famous. A chat with the Tonight Show host and former Doritos pitchman often turns to his collection of vintage cars and motorcycles; his theories on staying funny; the evolution of the talk show. But fame isn't enough for Leno,...

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Famous people are often boring, and Jay Leno is very, very famous. A chat with the Tonight Show host and former Doritos pitchman often turns to his collection of vintage cars and motorcycles; his theories on staying funny; the evolution of the talk show. But fame isn't enough for Leno, who occasionally hits the standup trail, playing small clubs between episodes of his nighttime talk show and sampling material that's too naughty for nighttime. To promote his upcoming Halloween show at NAU, Leno spoke to me about the joys of the nightclub circuit, the misery of "sucky" shows, and his new career as a political pawn.

New Times: So you're appearing at a club at NAU.

Jay Leno: Where?

NT: Northern Arizona University. It's in Flagstaff. You're playing at a club there next week.

Leno: Yeah. Yes. What can I tell you about it? I haven't done the show yet, so there's nothing to say.

NT: You do standup shows to try out new material for your TV show?

Leno: Not really. The standup is mostly what I'd call doing my greatest hits. When I do the Tonight Show monologue, it's really just a funny version of the news -- you know, one-liners or quick jokes about what's happened in the world that day. They're jokes that have a shelf life of about a week, about Rush Limbaugh doing drugs or Kobe Bryant, whatever. But in my stage show, I get to tell a story or spend time on a theme.

NT: Your old standup stuff was pretty edgy. What did you have to give up, in terms of your on-camera persona, now that you're hosting the world's biggest talk show?

Leno: I don't know. I think I'm the same person, but you change, you get older, you get more comfortable. My attitude as a comic is that you should be able to play to any audience. I talk to comics today, and they say, "I just do nightclubs or hip, cool clubs or Def Comedy Jam," but you should be able to play anywhere. It's an odd thing, because I used to do Letterman once a month, I did like 50 or 60 of them, and I'd have a month to prepare my material. You can be edgier than when you're doing it every day.

NT: Well, I remember when you used to . . .

Leno: Are you saying I'm less hip these days? Yes, that's probably true. But the hip, inside jokes I want to do usually die. I did one last night about how President Bush is trying to market the war in Iraq, and he's given it the slogan "This is not your father's Vietnam." And the audience booed. Then I told some silly joke about nothing, and the place went wild.

NT: So you've dumbed down your material, to make you appear "nicer" for a Middle American TV audience.

Leno: There's no such thing as a Middle American audience anymore. The idea that you'd go to Iowa and play to a bunch of guys in bib overalls chewing on a hunk of straw, those days are over, if they ever really existed. Today, everyone has access to the Internet, everyone's up on the same news and information.

NT: You're rich and famous. Why go out on the road and play little clubs?

Leno: In a nightclub, you know who you're playing to, and you're freer to make fun of a tragedy in another part of the world. With The Tonight Show, you reach more people, so the chances are greater that you're going to offend someone. I could do a joke about Siegfried and Roy getting eaten by a tiger, and the chances of someone in the club being related to one of them and getting offended are a gazillion to one. But on TV, someone related to those guys is going to be watching, so I wouldn't do that joke.

NT: What is it about talk shows? Why do so many stars -- and so many has-beens -- want to host talk shows?

Leno: They're easy to do, and they're cheap to produce. But you know, we don't really have talk shows anymore. Today they're comedy shows that have talk segments. And in the good old days, every single person didn't have his own publicist, so you'd have guests stumble out drunk and say outrageous things. Today, there's a conference before the show, where the publicist is saying, "Now, we're not gonna discuss the Playboy spread," or whatever. And you're going, "But that's why we booked her! She hasn't worked in three years, we only booked her on the show because she's naked in a magazine this week!"

NT: Your "Jay Walking" segments are pretty funny -- I like anything devoted to proving how stupid Americans are. But I don't believe most of the people you interview for that segment could possibly be that stupid.

Leno: I give you my word of honor, none of that is scripted. And there's no need to script it, because the answers we get are so unbelievable. It's smash-and-grab TV; you should come with me someday. You don't have to spend that much time before you get a stupid answer. We go after normal people; we don't talk to people who look homeless or semi-retarded. My favorite was when we asked people how Mt. Rushmore was formed. The most popular answer was "erosion."

NT: I refuse to believe that Heidi Klum's $8 million Victoria's Secret bra broke on camera by accident.

Leno: I promise you, it was not staged. I know you're suspicious, and I would be, too. But it really happened.

NT: You've taken some shots lately from political analysts who claim you've become the pawn of Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Bush.

Leno: You know, it's really silly. My wife got the Nobel Peace Prize a couple of years ago for her work on behalf of the women of Afghanistan. And everyone was screaming about how I'd become a liberal. And now I'm getting it about the Arnold thing. Look, I've known him for 25 years. I never said he'd be a good governor. I did all the jokes about him groping girls, but the night he got elected I introduced him after the polls closed. Now, that doesn't constitute an endorsement. I didn't campaign for him. And I'm not registered as either a Democrat or a Republic. I like anarchy, because it keeps politicians fighting among themselves, which is much more interesting than when they're getting along.

NT: But it is true that people in your position -- people with network talk shows -- have become more important to American politics than party chairmen.

Leno: Oh! Not really. The Tonight Show is a softball show. This isn't a hard-hitting interview program. People come on from all parties; we just had Howard Dean on the show, and Al Sharpton has been on. We show the lighter side of the politicians.

NT: Your pal Arnold busted you for looking at your watch during his acceptance speech.

Leno: Exactly. Oh, god. Everyone showed that clip. Letterman showed it! I'm like, "I had to get back to work! I was just checking the time because I had to get back to work!"

NT: You could run for office. Except then people would start digging up old horrors from your past. Like your stint on Laverne and Shirley.

Leno: No, I could not run for office. Politics is show business for ugly people.

NT: Speaking of which, how's the Jay Leno look-alike contest going?

Leno: That's something the network is doing. It's an Internet thing. I have to admit I don't pay much attention to stuff like that.

NT: I notice your fan club was canceled.

Leno: My fan club? I didn't know I had one.

NT: Oh, come on.

Leno: No, listen: The real trick to this business is to make show business money while living a normal life. I'm always suspicious when people are too solicitous. If you do a sucky show in this town, people will say, "You were great!" Then you look around and realize you're paying these people's salaries; what else are they going to say? Tickets to the Tonight Show are free, but when you go out on the road, people have to buy a ticket to see you. And if you suck, they're not gonna laugh. It's real simple. And so playing these small clubs is about finding out if your jokes are funny or not. It's about keeping it real.

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