"Strikes are like war. People over 40 avoid it at all costs; people under 40 go, 'Yeah, we'll kick some ass!'"
– Jay Leno
Guy MacPherson: Hi, Jay?
Jay Leno: Hey, what's going on?
GM: How are you?
JL: Tell a few jokes, try to make a living. That's the gig. It's a little slow right now with the strike.
GM: I was going to say. You've got some time off.
JL: Yeah, not good, though, you know. These things are never good. You know it's funny, strikes are like war. People over 40 avoid it at all costs; people under 40 go, "Yeah, we'll kick some ass!" And this is what happens.
GM: Didn't Carson go on the air when there was a writers strike?
JL: Yeah, after a while. I mean, that's something that weighs heavily on all of us. I managed to get my staff paid for a month but if it goes on much longer than that then people get laid off, people that are not going to gain by the strike. So when you have to start laying people off, it gets a little scary.
GM: It's like the real world. You're in show business; it's not supposed to be the real world.
GM: So are you getting antsy?
JL: Well, I would like to get back to work. I like to work. I work all the time anyway.
GM: What are you doing with your time?
JL: I'm still on the road a lot. I'm on the road three days a week anyway. I do 160 dates when I'm doing the show so it's just a little extra time off.
GM: You must have grown up watching The Tonight Show, like we all did.
JL: Of course. Sure.
GM: At what point in your life or career did you entertain thoughts of one day hosting it?
JL: Well, like most people in show business, you think of that from the first day but you never think something like that would ever happen. Obviously when I was guest-hosting I was like, "Wow, this is really fun. This would be a cool job to have."
GM: At that point, there wasn't much competition.
JL: There was a lot of competition.
GM: At that point? When you started guest hosting?
JL: Yeah. There were a lot of other guest hosts.
GM: Oh, yes. I meant other shows. Now it seems like everybody has a talk show.
JL: You know something? It's interesting because that's where people don't really give Johnny credit. Johnny had a lot of competition; he just managed to vanquish all of them. I mean, Joey Bishop went against him, Merv Griffin went against him, Dick Cavett went against him, Arsenio Hall... There were quite a few people. Especially in the middle-sixties, early-seventies. Jerry Lewis had a talk show against him. Everybody kind of laughs now because Johnny's the master but at the time everyone thought, "We're hiring this guy because this guy's going to knock Johnny out of the box." And of course it never happened. There's always been a lot of competition. It always kind of makes me laugh when people say, "So-and-so's the heavyweight champ but he couldn't have beaten this guy." Well, you can only live in the time you live in, you know what I mean? There always was plenty of competition. I would say to some extent Johnny probably had more because it was wide open at times. Joey Bishop was on for two years against him, as I said. And there were a couple of others. Keefe Brasselle, who nobody even remembers. There were a lot of people that went up against Johnny that just didn't last very long.
GM: Keefe Brasselle?
JL: Do you remember him?
JL: Something like that. He was on in the mid-sixties. There were quite a few. Jack Paar came back. I remember when they said Jack Paar was going back to television; he's going to blow Johnny out of the water, blah, blah, blah. Remember when Jack Paar got his second chance and he was going to beat Johnny and be the cool guy? Well, that never happened, either. So there's always been a lot of competition.
"Your first Tonight Show's like your first girlfriend: you're not very good at it, you're nervous and it's over before you knew what happened."
– Jay Leno
GM: You must remember the thrill of doing your first Tonight Show.
JL: Oh, yeah, you never forget your first Tonight Show. Your first Tonight Show's like your first girlfriend: you're not very good at it, you're nervous and it's over before you knew what happened, you know?
GM: Do you have a special thrill when you bring first-time comics on your show now?
JL: Yeah, it's always fun. I remember Johnny always had a phrase: "It's always a thrill when you bring out a new comic for the first time. Here's a young man from... whatever." And Johnny would call you over. It was always exciting.
GM: Do you give them advice? You've been there.
JL: Well, I mean, you give people advice if they want it. The one thing about being new to show business is you know everything! So unless someone kind of asks you for your advice... I mean, if people ask, I give it to them. You go, "Here's what I would do, here's how we handle that situation."
GM: It's a factor of being young, too, that you know everything.
JL: Yeah, yeah. Especially comics, who tend to be really individualistic. And that's why you're a comic because you're choosing to do things your own way. But if anybody wants advice, I'm certainly happy to give it.
GM: Do you ever think about your career if you never got the job? Obviously you'd still be doing standup.
JL: I'd still be doing exactly what I'm doing now. I've said this before but I've never ever touched a dime of my Tonight Show money. I earn the money I make as a comedian. That's what I do. Because I never wanted to be a TV personality or just a TV host. I never wanted to be one of those guys where if I didn't have 175 people I wouldn't be able to have a job. So to me, when something like this strike happens it just reaffirms, "Good, this is why I've always had two jobs."
GM: It's conceivable you wouldn't be making the same kind of money if you didn't have that Tonight Show presence.
JL: You know, one thing about show business is, you always make good money. I'm assuming you're reasonably proficient at what you do. You either make good money or you make crazy money. If you have something like The Tonight Show, you make crazy, ridiculous money. I mean, the worst comedian in the world makes more than the best teacher. And I don't say that as anything other than how ridiculous it is. But it is true. You go to some of these strip joints and you see these comedians that are just horrible and they're pulling in 80, 90, 150 grand a year. And you never heard of them. That's the one thing about show business. It does pay pretty well. But where I would be if I didn't have The Tonight Show? I'd probably be doing exactly the same thing on a smaller scale.
GM: You have to play to everyone. I know that's in the job description. But you must hold strong political beliefs like everyone. Do you have to bite your tongue when you're interviewing politicians or do you pretty much say what you want?
JL: I mean, we're not Meet the Press. There's nothing more annoying than show business people who have no idea what they're talking about commenting on political issues. Uh, yeah, I have certain beliefs and things I like and I think people can kind of figure it out, maybe, what it is. But to me, I always put the joke first. You know, I had a comedian come out on the show once. A new comic, talking about giving advice. His opening line was, "I'm a liberal Democrat." And then he proceeded to bash Bush and he got exactly half the audience. And I said to him, "You know, we'll figure out if you're a Democrat. Just come out and do your jokes and let people draw their opinion based on what you say. If you have to tell them, if you have to hit them over the head with it, you're already going to piss off half your audience. If you say, 'I'm a liberal Democrat', you'll turn off half the audience; if you come out and said, 'I'm a conservative Republican', you'll piss off half the audience. But if you just come out and tell a joke, you'll get the whole audience." And it's true. That's my goal. We try to humiliate and degrade everybody equally. There's nothing funnier for me than when I had Governor Schwarzenegger on: "Well, Mr. Leno, I hope you and your Republican friends are happy now that blah, blah, blah." Then when I had Barack Obama on about a month and a half ago: "Well, Mr. Leno, I hope you and your liberal Democrats feel free that you're ruining the country." So that's what it is. Whoever's in power, you're always the other side. When Clinton was in power, "Mr. Leno, you're harping on the Monica Lewinsky scandal!" It's... it's... it's what it is. It's kind of humorous.
GM: And it's an entertainment show, not a bully pulpit.
JL: No, exactly. And we have people on who represent all types of views. I have comedians on I like and comedians on I don't particularly care for.
"First you're the new guy. Then you become the guy. Then you're the hip guy. Then you're the guy who sold out! You cannot be the hip new guy forever. That's just the nature of the beast. When you're on TV everyday, you can't be as cutting edge as you were on 10 or 15 Letterman appearances a year."
– Jay Leno
GM: I remember when you were a regular guest on Letterman's old show and that was absolutely must-see TV. Being such a die-hard standup that you are, do you miss those days when everyone thought, "That's the guy!"?
JL: Oh, I used to love doing that. But you know what it is? First you're the new guy. Then you become the guy. Then you're the hip guy. Then you're the guy who sold out! (laughs) You cannot be the hip new guy forever. That's just the nature of the beast. When you're on TV everyday, you can't be as cutting edge as you were on 10 or 15 Letterman appearances a year.
GM: Did you ever play Vancouver back in the early days?
JL: A lot. I used to do the Tommy Banks show out of the Cave. I mean, I wouldn't stretch it to say I got my start in Canada, but in some ways I did. When I was in college I used to do the draft dodger tours. I used to open for Jesse Winchester, Jerry Jeff Walker, all these guys that were protesting the war. They went up to Canada and would play all the border towns and do concerts and I was their opening act. I played Saskatchewan, Regina, Moose Jaw, Winnipeg. I've been to every city in Canada. And I like Canada, actually. Because, you know, for comedy, the colder it is, kinda the better the audience. Because where it's cold, people stay inside and they read books and they're kind of smart. There's nothing worse than trying to do comedy in, you know, Acapulco, Mexico. You're on stage and a guy in a sail fish goes by waving through the window and it's 9 o'clock at night and the sun is shining in the window. It's not the most conducive to comedy.
GM: How does your live show differ from your monologue?
JL: It differs from the monologue in the sense that you can take your time and tell stories and take a little bit longer. The Tonight Show monologue is really like going through the newspaper. They're all topical jokes that don't have a shelf life of more than a week or two, most of them. You do the opening story, whatever it is, and as you go through the monologue, you do sports and entertainment and then you end on whatever pop icon – Britney Spears or whoever it might be. Whereas when you do a live show you can tell stories. Because a lot of times I'll tell a joke on The Tonight Show and you'll have a funny punchline, then after the show or the next day you'll go, "Ah, I wish I had said this instead or added this to that or done this." Well, you can do that in a club or theatre. You know, a nightclub is kind of like Groundhog Day. You sort of do the same thing all the time only you learn how to do it better and better and better.
"A nightclub is kind of like Groundhog Day. You sort of do the same thing all the time only you learn how to do it better and better and better."
– Jay Leno
GM: That's a great analogy. You're famously known as one of the good guys in show business. And you talked about people saying when you reach a certain point that you've sold out. There are all sorts of little feuds with you. Is that just insecure, neurotic celebrities?
JL: All these little feuds with what?
GM: With you.
JL: You know, it is funny how that works. I remember we had one comedian in particular. They were new; they were unknown. And they were essentially calling President Bush an asshole. Not quite that blatant, though. And I said, "People don't really know you just yet. Why don't you maybe temper the joke a little bit? Just kind of ease into it." And their manager was like, "Oh, no, no, no. Our client is making a point." Okay, great. I'm just giving my advice. Well, the comic went out and pretty much died. And then the manager came over and said, "Well, your self-fulfilling prophesy... You said he was going to bomb and you made sure he did." I go, "No, I didn't. I just told you you came out really harsh. You're an unknown person and you came out attacking someone before people know who you are. Let them know who you are first and then when they realize you're a good guy, you're a normal person, then you go in with your jab. But when you come out and you throw your left hook and it misses...". Well, he wouldn't hear about it and I ruined his career. You know.
GM: How could you possibly have ruined it?
JL: That's what happens. That's what happens. I mean, you just get that a lot. Or a lot of times you'll see a comedian. Johnny was very kind. He'd never say you're not going to do the show; he would say you're six months away, you're two years away, you're 50 years away.
GM: He would or his people?
JL: Well, his people. Or Johnny would if you spoke to Johnny. So he was always really good with that. A lot of times, I'll see a comedian and I'll do the same thing. "You're about six months away. You can't do these shows too late; you can only do them too soon. Work on your material, try to develop this." And then what you get back is, "Leno was scared. I blew him away so badly I think he was afraid that he would lose the show or I would be funnier than his monologue." (laughs) And you go, "No, that's not what happened, but okay, if that makes you feel good." It's just very funny. The real trick is the old Robert Burns thing, to see ourselves as others see us. And that's really the trick to show business. If something's not getting a laugh, the audience is not a jerk, they're not stupid – you're not making your point or you're not getting your point across properly.
GM: But there are different audiences where something might kill one night and die the next.
JL: It's not hard and fast, but it's a pretty good rule to follow. My attitude is if it's not going well on stage, it is 100 percent your fault. And if you just take the blame all the time... It's like being married. It's just easier. It's my fault; let me fix this. (laughs)
GM: I was reading that after Bill Hicks was knocking you, he actually wrote you a letter and said it's nothing personal and that you were still friends.
JL: What happened was I knew Bill from when he was 15. There's a funny thing about comedians. Sometimes they would ask me to go to places and speak to young comics. And the one that thinks you're an idiot and walks out of the room is probably the best comic there. And Hicks was about 15 and he wasn't having any of this. And I went over to him and I said, "I understand why you walked out. I walked out, too. That means you're a good comic. Don't worry about it. These aren't hard and fast rules; I'm just throwing stuff out there. Use what you can use." And we became friends over the years. And then one time he wanted to be on our show. He had at the time, the early '90s, very controversial, all this Jesus material. And I said to him, "You know, you can't use that on the show." And he got all mad at me, called me this, that and the next thing. And he called me and said, "Well, I'm going to go on so-and-so's show and they're going to let me do what I do." I said, "Okay. I don't think they will but okay." Anyway, he went on the other show and afterwards they cut it to ribbons. They just edited everything out so it wasn't very funny. And he was furious. And I had a long talk with him. I said, "Bill, I was honest with you. I told you we couldn't use it. I didn't say we're going to use you, put you on, use your name and then cut you all to bits." And then that's when he wrote me the letter and said, "I'm sorry." But we remained friends up until he died.
GM: It's the top dog syndrome. You can't make all these decisions yourself.
JL: No, you just can't make everybody happy. That's what it is. I don't know that top dog is necessarily the thing. It's a TV show, you know?
GM: What's happening with the show? Are you really leaving in 2009?
JL: Oh, yeah.
GM: So in retirement you'll just continuing touring, right?
JL: I'll figure out... I'll find a job.
GM: I always loved it when Carson had guest hosts, whether it was Rickles or Rich Little or Vicki Carr or anybody. It was just fun seeing someone different. But nobody does that anymore.
JL: People think it's because you're paranoid as hosts. The reason you don't do it is because it's actually more work for your staff. To me, I like to work. And when I get days off, I like to give days off to my staff. If you put a guest host on, then everybody has to work twice as hard because they have to write a monologue for that guest host, they have to teach that guest host where to stand and how to talk to a guest. Everybody's there till midnight getting ready for a guest host. So consequently, that's why you just give everybody the day off. I mean, if we're going to do a show, I'll do the show. If I decide I want a guest host, then everybody has to come in early and work twice as hard. That's why they don't do it.
GM: You were a guest host, but before that didn't you like seeing people that you would never expect to host a show on there?
JL: Yeah, sometimes when it was a comic, it was good. I remember seeing Peter Bogdanovich and going, "Oh my God."
GM: (laughs) Yeah, it didn't always work but that was part of the fun.
JL: Don't forget, we live in a different age. We live in an age where we have so many choices. In the old days, you got monthly ratings. Then in the '70s or '80s, you got weekly ratings. I get minute-by-minute ratings. This is what I get: "Hey, what happened at 12:06?" Uh, I don't know. Who was on at 12:06? Oh, yeah, they told that really long, boring story. "Well look, we had a 12 percent turnoff with them at 12:06." And you go, okay. And they go, "What happened at 11:59?" Oh, the comedy bit ended early. "Yeah, because I notice when we went to commercial we dropped four percent." I mean, that's what you're dealing with now. In the old days, you had a guest host on and they weren't very good, it was kinda funny. Now it's a huge corporate decision.
GM: And I guess that's why there aren't as many dry authors on.
JL: No. There aren't any authors. That's one thing: to get Americans to read a book, oh my God. It better have a lot of pictures and some of them better be of Angelina Jolie or you're in a lot of trouble. So yeah, authors are tough. I can tell you the last author I had. I think it was Amy Tan.
GM: And when was that?
JL: Ninety-something. "We dropped 41 percent with the author! What happened?!"
GM: Do you think there's anything to all these numbers?
JL: Yes. I can tell you if an actress walks out in a skirt and a low top, ratings stay the same or go up. Walks out in a pantsuit and a shirt buttoned up to the neck, they drop about 14 percent. This is a science! (said sarcastically, laughing) This is science.
"If something's not getting a laugh, the audience is not a jerk, they're not stupid – you're not getting your point across properly."
– Jay Leno
GM: I had a little Tonight Show moment a while back. Brad Garrett mentioned me on your show.
JL: Oh, he did? What was that?
GM: I gave him a bad review and he brought out the paper and he quoted from it.
JL: Oh, that's right! That was you? That's hilarious.
GM: That was me. And he was very funny on the show. I like Brad Garrett. I just didn't like his live show.
JL: And what did he do in the live show? Was it too dirty?
GM: He was kinda like being Rickles but without the barrier and it was too much. But the way he talked about it and insulted me I thought was very funny. He's an engaging guy and I've always liked him but I didn't care for his show.
JL: That's funny. That's right, I do remember. I do remember him reading that on the air.
GM: I was going, "Hey, that's me!"
JL: Were you surprised that night?
GM: Like I said, I thought it was funny.
JL: Did you see it that night or did you hear about it?
GM: You know what? Somebody actually posted it on a comedy message board. I missed it that night but caught it the next on Star TV up here, which reruns the previous night's show.
JL: Oh, that's funny.