After his two-plus decades on late-night television, you can see Jay Leno even when he’s only on the phone: big hair (apparently it’s messy today, too), pronounced jaw, clipped voice. He’s calling in from Los Angeles, where he just finished a voiceover session for the Disney animated show “Mickey and the Roadsters.”
“I like voiceovers,” said Leno, a noted car collector who plays racetrack announcer Billy Beagle on the show. “You don’t have to comb your hair. You don’t have to get dressed up. It’s fantastic.”
Leno, 67, will be suiting up and coiffing Saturday when he opens the season at Chautauqua Institution with a stand-up show. Here are excerpts of my conversation with the former host of “The Tonight Show,” lightly edited for length and clarity:
Q: You seem to balance the political material in your act and talking about Republicans and Democrats equally. Is that instinctive, or something you learned to do over time?
A: (Jerry) Seinfeld and I talk about this all time. We grew up in an era where you had to play any audience.
With Netflix and comedy specials, comedians find their audience and play to that. If you have a particular point of view – Republican or Democrat – you just go to that audience and play to that crowd. But that doesn’t help you grow as a performer. As a performer, your goal is to be funny first, and people will figure out your politics.
I remember years we had a comedian on “The Tonight Show” who I thought was pretty funny, and his opening line was, “I’m a liberal Democrat.” I said, “Believe me, by the time you get to your third kale vegan joke, people will know you’re a liberal Democrat.” Just do your act and let them come to that discovery on their own. When you make an announcement like that, right away you lose half the crowd.
I always found when I was on the road, I would do a (Donald) Trump joke and I would do a Hillary (Clinton) joke, and go back and forth, and everybody started laughing as they realized, “Oh, you’re just not picking on one side.”
Believe me, I can’t stand Trump. I hate the guy. But to have an hour of Trump jokes is not going to get you anywhere. You’ll lose a big section of your audience. The idea is to play it reasonably down the middle. But that’s me.
Q: Do we tend to give Trump too much attention for the wrong things?
A: I was lucky. I came up at a time when (George) Bush was dumb and (Bill) Clinton was horny. These were just sort of normal human failings you could have some fun with. Prior to this, I never questioned anybody’s motive. You just questioned their judgment. You know what I’m saying? So to me, I just don’t like the guy personally. I don’t know anybody who conducts themselves likes this or talks like this.
I don’t know how much presidents do or don’t do, but at the end of the day when they tell you a bedtime story, it makes you feel good. Whether it’s Reagan’s shining city on the hill, or Barack Obama talking about bringing people together. By the end you go, “Oh, nothing really changed, but at least I felt better about it because he talked about it in a nice way.”
This thing where everybody is a “loser,” and when you’re attacking Rose O’Donnell; it doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t get it.
Q: What role do comics have in helping people get perspective on the news?
A: It’s kind of a self-serving question, but in the early days of television, news was not even rated because they didn’t want anything to influence it. Now news is governed by advertising, and how many lead stories on the local news are about so-and-so’s special is on tonight. What? What? What’s that all about? Comics can cut some of the, uh, whatever word you use instead of —. (Leno uses a word that he acknowledges we can’t publish.)
When you watch Samantha Bee or (Stephen) Colbert or Jimmy (Fallon) or any of these guys and they say something, it just cuts to the quick. That’s something they don’t do on the local news.
Q: I was talking to a rising stand-up comic who told me, “Comedians are the only people left who can tell the truth.” Do you agree with that?
A: The answer lies somewhere in the middle. One thing you don’t want to do is get too self-important as a comedian, when you think you’re the only one telling the truth. The truth is most comics just want a really good laugh. That’s what you’re going for, and if there happens to be some truth in it, well that’s really nice, too. But most comics will lie their teeth off if it gets them a good laugh.
I think comics are truth-tellers to a certain extent, but you need to be a comedian first. The idea is to really be funny. I can remember when I was a really young person, Mort Sahl was the political comedian. I went to see him one time. He came out onstage with charts and graphs about the Warren Commission and the assassination of President (John F.) Kennedy, and how could the bullet have entered here and exited here?
By the end of the show, almost the entire audience had left, because he wasn’t being funny. He was just giving his point of view. In his version, he was telling the truth. But the biggest sin was, it wasn’t funny.
The Kathy Griffin incident, perfect example of that, when she held up the bloody Trump head. If it had been funny, people would have gone, “That was awful. But I’ve got to tell you, it was really funny.” If it’s not funny, you’re just standing there naked onstage.
Ticket information for Leno's 8:15 p.m. June 24 show is available on the Chautauqua Institution website.