There's an elephant on the line and his name is Conan O'Brien. Jay Leno signed off on a phone interview to promote his standup tour with the stipulation that the "Tonight Show" short-timer's name not come up in conversation. Despite the restriction, Leno did address at least one of his competitors, as well as a number of other topics:
Last time I saw you in person, you had slimmed down a bit. Are you still working out?
I get two miles each day on the treadmill while watching TV, around 7:30 a.m. downstairs from the office.
7:30? That’s pretty early for a late-night host.
Well, when you’re the highest-paid guy on a gig, you get there first, you take the crappiest office and you leave last. It just makes it easier that way.
Do you still indulge in things like ribs?
Yeah, sure. I’ll probably stop at Market Bar-B-Que when I’m in Minneapolis. I’ve been going there for 30 years. I make it a thing to stop by certain places when I’m on the road, like this place in Kansas that makes chocolate-chip cookies or White House Subs in Atlantic City. It’s nice to have one little connection.
How does that help you do your job?
Other people with shows are broadcasters who are also comedians. I’m a nightclub comedian who was lucky to get a gig on TV. I love getting a sense of where people are and what’s appropriate.
How much of the same material do you recycle year after year in your nightclub act?
There’s probably about 25 to 30 percent turnover. I mean, I don’t do HBO specials. I don’t put out CDs. So people don’t get tired of the same routine over and over. I had this discussion with a young comedian who was going to do a Comedy Central special. I told him, “Don’t give everything away,” but he went and did his whole 45-minute act for not a lot of money. Two months later he’s in a nightclub and people are yelling, “Hey, I heard that joke on TV last night!” That’s what happens.
At one point in your career did you have an hour of material?
In this business, you think you have an hour in your first week, then quickly realize you have a lot less. Jerry Seinfeld and I always discuss this. If you’re going to play to a cross-section of America, you can’t do material on, say, popular music, because if you’re not 18 to 30, you’re not going to know what’s going on.
There’s nothing wrong with niche comedians, but they never grow their fan base. Like people who work really blue can leapfrog to the middle and stay there for the rest of their lives. You can take a clean joke and make it dirty, but you can’t take dirty jokes and make them cleaner. It’s just tricky. Corporate gigs are tricky. Sometimes it’s 10 a.m., the company has had a bad year and the boss has just yelled at them and then you come out. Every comic has a corporate nightmare story.
There was this company and they asked if I would pick on a few people in the audience. Bob Walker, they said, is a big office flirt. If you do anything about sex or girls, just throw to Bob and you’ll get a big laugh. OK, fine. So I do a joke about prostitutes and I say, “Bob, you know what I’m talking about.” Big laugh. Later I say, “Bob, you use condoms when you’re on the road, right?” Ha, ha, ha. I start in on a third joke, and this woman starts crying and tears out of the building. Apparently, they had completely forgotten that Bob’s wife didn’t know he was the office flirt.
I think it’s safe to assume that Bob’s wife is now a David Letterman fan.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Speaking of Dave, you got a lot of attention for the Super Bowl ad you two did last year. I think a lot of us were hoping that might rekindle a friendship. Did you?
Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. You know, they can take shots at me, but I don’t do it. I don’t think it makes for a good atmosphere. I’ll shake hands with anybody. You want to be my friend, OK.
Do you foresee a day when you two might be friends again?
We’ll see. We’re not getting any younger.
When was the last time you were really nervous?
Really nervous? Let’s see ... the White House Correspondents Dinner with Ronald Reagan. It was my first time. I was backstage and this general-looking guy says, “This is the president. You don’t do jokes about the president.” Yessir. Yessir. Next guy who comes up to me is (Secretary of State) George Shultz. He says, “Ronnie loves a good joke. Nail him. He’ll think it’s hilarious.”
What did you do?
My opening joke was congratulating Nancy for being named humanitarian of the year and beating out that conniving little, Mother Teresa.
What’s the last bit of great advice you got?
Hmmmm. I’ll call Seinfeld when I need advice. Jerry was very helpful when I was doing the prime-time show.
Guess the advice wasn’t good.
Hey, Kelsey Grammer has had half a dozen shows, some that failed, some that didn’t. In the end, it was just a failed TV show.