No one appears to be having more fun these days with the plight of Jay Leno than Leno himself. When rumors started swirling in March that the late-night leader would be replaced by Jimmy Fallon, he responded by bashing his bosses in his monologue, and joined Fallon in a mock performance of “Tonight” from “West Side Story.”
And during a brilliant arc last season on FX’s “Louie,” Leno played a sadder, more bitter version of himself, lamenting the fact that after hosting “The Tonight Show” for most of 20 years, he no longer could pass as a hip outsider.
While Leno has addressed the fact that he’s losing the franchise on screen, he’s barely talked to the news media about the February 2014 switch. Until now.
Leno agreed to a phone interview last week in conjunction with his role next Saturday as emcee for the 31st annual benefit for Bloomington’s PACER Center, which helps families of disabled children and young adults. He did answer questions — begrudgingly — about handing over the show for the second time. At one point, a network publicist joined in and unsuccessfully tried to pull all comments from the record.
How much did the 63-year-old reveal about his true feelings? Judge for yourself.
Q: Congrats on your Emmy-worthy appearance on FX’s “Louie.” How close to the bone did those lines come about missing your “outsider”days?
A: The joke is that you can’t stay the new, hip comedian forever. When I took “The Tonight Show,” people said, “Oh, Jay’s a sellout.” Well, no. It’s just a different job.
Q: When you no longer have the weight of “The Tonight Show” with you, does it free you up to be edgier, maybe return to the angrier persona you had on stage in the past?
A: What’s more annoying than an angry 63-year-old? You change with the times. Once you’ve had “The Tonight Show,” you can’t complain about being broke and flying economy class because it’s just not true. I’m a comic who plays to whatever audience is in front of me. I admire comics who can work that way.
I once played Oral Roberts University just to see if I could do it. They were interested in politics and stuff, but they wanted nothing to do with sex and obscenity. That’s OK.
Q: Not only are you hosting the PACER event, but you’ll also be serving as auctioneer. I know one of the items is a personalized tour of your car garage. What are those like?
A: If you’re a car guy, it’s interesting. If you’re not a car guy, it’s like going to the mall with your wife and waiting on the bench while she shops for shoes.
Q: David Letterman recently said that you’ve got the best stand-up act in the business, but that you’re also the most insecure person he’s ever known. How did you react to that?
A: That’s hilarious, coming from Letterman. Look, we have a mutual admiration that goes back to the first day. I’ve always admired Dave for his wordsmith ability, and I think he admired me for my stage presence. When I did his show, I would come on with the biggest meatball sandwich. That would astound Dave, who can’t even eat hours before he goes on. I know what gets under his skin.
Q: Do you envision yourself visiting “The Late Show” after you’re done at NBC?
A: That might happen. I like Dave a lot.
Q: You’re having Matt Lauer on your show in a few days. I’m sure you can relate to his situation where he’s getting some bad press because of the ouster of Ann Curry. Any advice for him?
A: Who am I to give advice? I like Matt a lot. It’s a little unfair. These decisions are not made by people at our level. The amount of power people think a celebrity has is ridiculous. If you think Jay Leno demanded this or that — one, you’re an idiot, and second, you’re misinformed.
Q: How do you really feel about NBC’s decision to go with Fallon?
A: I like Jimmy a lot. If you look at old interviews, I always said that 64 is about the right age to go. Johnny Carson was 66. There’s a huge difference in age between Jimmy and I. It’s really visible. It makes perfect sense. Of course, then the press says, “Oh, Jay got fired.” No. I was part of the process.
Q: You’ve already departed once before. For that final show you brought on all your staff members’ kids who were born during the show’s run. Any idea how you’ll end it this time?
A: I haven’t thought about it. It’s a year away. I’ve got to write a 14-minute monologue every day. I have no idea what I’ll be writing 300 times from now.