But as kidlike as his passion for cars is, his devotion to his work is anything but boyish. And his relationship with his wife, Mavis Leno, is a grown-up love that has sustained them for more than 20 years. In 1976, when Jay met Mavis—an activist whose campaign to help Afghani women fight oppression under the Taliban was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize—he was already doing the stand-up routines that would lead him toward the pot of gold. The son of a homemaker and an insurance salesman, both now deceased, he decided to pursue comedy when he was still in high school, after winning a talent show at the McDonald's where he worked. At Emerson College in Boston, Jay began writing short comedy sketches with his roommate, performing gigs on campus, and earning extra cash with his routine at local coffee shops.
He hasn't stopped working since. After years on the comedy club circuit, Jay first appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1977. When Carson retired in 1992, Jay won the top job. In the ten years since, The Tonight Show has won two Emmys—and Jay has not taken one sick day. He still does stand-up comedy on weekends and writes his own material. And he recently asked for less vacation.
After a tour of some of his favorite cars (he loves them all, he says, but the Duesenbergs rank somewhere near the top), I sit down to talk with one of the hardest-working men in Hollywood—and certainly one of the coolest dudes I know.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Jay Leno
Note: This interview appeared in the February 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: Did you always know comedy was your calling?
Jay: I never said, "This is my calling." My mother would always say, "There's a time to be funny and a time to be serious"—but for her, there really wasn't a time to be funny. We could be at Disneyland, and she'd say, "Not here." Well, then where, Ma? Annoying my mother was one of my great pastimes. Mom was from Scotland, and Scottish people are reserved. That's why it's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno—not Starring Jay Leno. And even with that, my mother would say, "Why do you have to have your name all over everything?" When I was 7 or 8, one of my great pranks was to run away from my mom, and then go up to a manager in a store and say, "I can't find my mother. Would you page Catherine Leno?" For my mom, nothing was worse than having her name called out in public: "Catherine Leno, please come to the front." She'd come running up, yelling, "He wasn't lost—he's just being silly!"
Oprah: So you were always doing things to be funny?
Jay: Yes, but I wasn't thinking in terms of show business—8-year-olds here in Los Angeles already know they want to be lighting directors, but I'd never even met anyone in show business. It's one of those few fields in which people who know nothing about it feel free to give expert advice. When I was in high school and thinking of becoming a comedian, a lady up the street said to me, "You can only be a comedian if your father was one—that's the way it works in Hollywood." This from a woman who'd never even left town!
Oprah: When did you know you wanted to pursue comedy?
Jay: About a month ago. No, really—I always had day jobs, and I did comedy at night. I'd put my comedy money in one pocket and my job money in another, and I'd live on my comedy money. I still do. When it got to the point that one night of comedy was more than a week's worth of day job money, I thought, Let me get myself some more nights of comedy and lose this regular job.
Oprah: You were smart about it.
Jay: I used to tell one of my friends before we'd visit New York, "Always keep 40 bucks in one pocket and a couple hundred in another. Then if you get robbed, you can just hand over the 40 bucks." So the guy gets jumped one day with a knife, and the robber says, "Give me your money!" And he goes, "Here—oh, no, that was from the wrong pocket!" So he got all screwed up and had to hand over all the money.
Oprah: I know your comedic style has developed over the years, but was there a point when you knew telling stories was your best approach?
Jay: On The Tonight Show, I have to tell jokes, but telling stories has always worked for me because it was part of my life growing up. There was such a dichotomy between my father's Italian side and my mom's Scot side—they were bizarrely different. For Sunday dinner, we'd go to the Italian side: meatballs and spaghetti and more food than we could eat. Then we'd go to my aunt's house, and she'd keep Coca-Cola in the cupboard, because why would she pay to refrigerate something for ten days when she wasn't drinking it yet? So we'd go from meatballs and lasagna to a warm Coke and a stale scone. My aunt would pour a half-glass of Coke, and it would overflow because it was so hot! When we'd go to the Italian side for dinner, my [Scottish] aunt would say, "Look at the waste." She'd be counting how many meatballs were left!
Oprah: And we know you love meat. Your family were newcomers to this country. Wasn't it a matter of pride to write home about having meat?
Jay: My grandmother would write home and say she'd had meat once a week. Even though she really had it four days a week, no one would ever believe that. Because my parents grew up during the Depression, I have this great fear—
Oprah: That you'll run out of meat?
Jay: Or money. That's why I'm not a mortgage kind of guy. When I have the money to buy something, I buy it outright. And I still bank my TV money. I've never touched a dime of The Tonight Show money.
Jay: It's invested. I live on the money I earn as a comic. Comedy is what I do—the key is to make show business money and lead a normal life. At any moment in show business, you can hear, "Sorry, we made a mistake with you."
Oprah: You still think you'll hear that after more than a decade on The Tonight Show?
Jay: You have to think like that. When I first got The Tonight Show, there was talk about me being replaced. And some people said, "I don't care much for you, but I like the jokes you do at the beginning." I'd think, "Fine, now you have a reason to watch. I'll try to give you more reasons."
Oprah: Do you care about being liked?
Jay: That seems important to me.
Oprah: Would you rather be liked or be thought of as funny?
Jay: Probably liked. I think high self-esteem is overrated. A little low self-esteem is actually quite good. Some people with very high self-esteem tend to be criminals or egomaniacs, you know? I do understand that children should have good self-esteem, but there's nothing wrong with feeling like maybe you're not the greatest. Maybe you're not the best, so you should work a little harder. That was my mom's thing. Because I was dyslexic, she would say, "You're going to have to work a little harder than the other kids to get the same thing." My guidance counselor once jokingly told my mom, "You know, education's not for everyone. Have you thought of taking Jay out of school?" My mother goes, "No, why would he quit school?" She was furious at the guy!
Oprah: It's wonderful that your parents lived to see what you became.
Jay: Yes, but they never quite understood it. Back in 1986 when I was performing at Carnegie Hall, I got my parents two seats four rows back, dead center. So I'm onstage, and I see these college kids laughing during my performance, and my mom is going, "Shhh! Shhh!" I stop and go, "Ma, you don't shush people at a comedy show! They're supposed to laugh!" Remember that this was my mother's nightmare—to be singled out in a group of people. My mother was stunned. Then when I was on the cover of Time back in 1992, I called my mother and said, "Ma, go uptown and get a copy of Time." She said, "Now, which one is that?" I said, "It's Time magazine, Ma—one of the biggest." She said, "And you're on the cover?" I said, "Call Aunt Faye in New Jersey and everybody in New York, and tell them I'm on the cover." There was this long pause. Then she finally said, "I don't think you'd be on the cover there, Jay. They just put you on the cover here in Andover because they know you're from our area." That's what I mean when I say they never quite got it.
Oprah: Over the years, you've met almost every big star in the business. Have you seen stardom change people?
Jay: I've seen how brief a career in this business can be. There are people I'd never heard of when I started on the show who became stars three years later. We had worked like dogs to get them on the air, and the next time we'd hear, "Sorry, we're booked that week."
Oprah: Hasn't the ascent to stardom sped up?
Jay: Yes, and the heyday is only about eight years now. During that time, they're the handsomest or the prettiest.
Oprah: You don't have to do very much these days to be a star.
Jay: What do you mean?
Oprah: Compare the days of Elizabeth Taylor with what we have now—you can be marketed to appear to be a star, even if you don't have a hit song or movie.
Jay: And attention spans are much shorter now. I contend that you cannot give people all the news of the world in 22 minutes. When I was a kid, Walter Cronkite would do the news, then Eric Sevareid would explain the background story. Now you see an Israeli bus being blown up, and across the bottom of the screen there's a crawl saying JENNIFER LOPEZ TO MARRY BEN AFFLECK. What? Jennifer Lopez is marrying Ben Affleck on a blown-up bus in Israel? There's so much happening that you don't know what to focus on.
Oprah: Yes. Getting back to this idea of stars coming and going, I remember seeing a magazine cover of Arsenio Hall saying I'M GONNA KICK JAY LENO'S ASS.
Jay: Oh, yeah—that was funny.
Oprah: You thought that was funny? I didn't.
Jay: Even when Arsenio and I were battling, we'd call each other up to yell and end up making each other laugh. There's really only a dozen or so people doing this kind of thing who understand exactly what's involved and can share your experiences. I always knew Arsenio and I would be friends. I just let that cover go. It's publicity. And when he had his show, both of us had agents and PR people who were allegedly working for our best interests, so a lot of the stuff wouldn't come directly from us.
Oprah: Come on, Jay—you weren't upset for one minute?
Jay: Oh, sure, I was upset at first. But I knew we would be friends again. I remember when Arsenio was on the air for about a week, he said, "This show's gonna be about funk and music—and you're not gonna see Barry Manilow's ass on here." Applause. Cut to a few months later, and Arsenio is sitting there saying, "Barry, your Christmas album is..." Around the time when he was out there with this "I'm gonna kick Jay's ass" stuff I called Arsenio and said, "Didn't you say I wouldn't be seeing Barry Manilow?" We both laughed. I said, "Okay, well, keep kicking my ass." You cannot be mad at somebody who makes you laugh—it's as simple as that. There are other comics I don't trust, but I still find them amusing. Like anything else, comedy can be addictive.
Oprah: So did you and Arsenio remain friends even after he'd lost his show?
Jay: It's a bit like the relationship you might have with someone you've broken up with. Arsenio and I started in this business together. This is the kind of job where you really have to say—no pun intended—"Kick my ass, [I'll] turn the other cheek." I've had stars say, "I will never do Jay Leno's show." But you still see their movie, you read their book, you listen to their CD, you send them notes. And eventually, you win them back. You can't hold a grudge, because they need you and you need them. It's all just show business. It's silly.
Oprah: You're right—it doesn't make any sense.
Jay: As a comedian, you cannot hit the stage with any malice in your heart or it won't work. There's nothing funny when you go to a club and hear a comedian saying, "So anyway, my ex-wife..." You think, Gee, these jokes are a little harsh, aren't they? You sense the anger behind the words. If I have a problem with someone, it's resolved before showtime—win or lose. For instance, if you and I had a big fight today and I had a show tonight, I would call you and try to work it out, and it would end with, "Well look, Oprah, I'm sorry."
Oprah: Clean—that's really good.
Jay: Show business is a marriage, and you can't go to bed mad or it doesn't work.
Oprah: Jay, you're one of the funniest guys in the world, but I know there is serious work behind that. Don't you work all the time?
Jay: It's only work if you don't enjoy it. Most people have a job, not a career. Because this is a career for me, everything I do eventually benefits me. If you work for the Yale Lock Company, then all your benefit goes to the Yale Lock Company.
Oprah: But aren't you always reading magazines, looking through newspapers, trying to find good material?
Jay: My attitude is the same one I had in school. I didn't study a whole lot, but I never skipped a day of school—I just tried to show up and pay attention so I could absorb things. That's kind of what comedy is. You have two TVs on while you're reading the paper, and you try to process it all.
Oprah: So you're never not working?
Jay: I'm always looking for something funny. I need voluminous amounts of material to do 11 minutes of jokes every day, so I try to find humor in every single thing that happens.
Oprah: I love it when you take the mike out onto the street. Don't people say the funniest things?
Jay: It's amazing what you get. It's not that you're so smart; it's just that most people are really kinda dumb. We can go to the most upscale areas, like Melrose, and ask, "Who was the first president?" The answer we get: "Lincoln." And here's my favorite question: "How was Mount Rushmore formed?" You know what the most common answer is? "Erosion."
Jay: Yes! Over thousands of years, the wind and the sky not only picked out four of our greatest presidents but knew to put the beard on Lincoln!
Oprah: When you're talking to people now, do you ever think back to your first time on Tonight?
Jay: Sure. Your first Tonight Show is a bit like your first girlfriend. You're not very good at it, it's over very quickly—but you want to do it again!
Oprah: Do you remember what you felt like standing behind the curtain, waiting to go out?
Jay: It was actually more nerve-racking afterward. I'd bought this enormous VCR, for like $2,000, just to tape it. So I remember being more nervous waiting to see the tape than I was during the real show.
Oprah: Does it get easier or harder?
Jay: Probably easier. Show business is like high school. It's hard to be the class clown when you're a freshman; you're just a smart-ass nobody knows. When you're a senior and you're the class clown, everyone says, "Oh, that's just Jay!" Even now when I embarrass a big star, it's like, "Oh, that's just Jay being stupid."
Oprah: Do you still feel compelled to work as hard as you did in the early days?
Jay: For so long, I worked for no money. I lived through "Boo, you stink, get outta here." I remember flying all the way to New York from Los Angeles, driving up to a theater, and finding it all boarded up. I was broke! They didn't even call me to say they were closed. Being a famous comedian gives you the first ten minutes free. New comics say things like, "It took me almost 20 minutes, but I got 'em." Once people know who you are, you have them from the start—but then you have to keep them.
Oprah: Were there any scandals that gave you your funniest material?
Jay: The Monica Lewinsky scandal was the golden age of comedy. A lot of people don't understand the Middle East or Iraq, but everybody knows a guy like Bill. I have a theory on why certain women like Clinton. He might try to have sex with you, but at least he'll also try to help you get your childcare bill through.
Oprah: So it's not his charisma?
Jay: It's that, too—but think of how many men really don't like women.
Oprah: You're in your 11th year of The Tonight Show. What's next for you?
Jay: More of the same. I'm pretty good at this type of piecemeal factory work. It's a young man's game, so I can't imagine another 20 years. By then I'll probably be doing the condos in Florida, entertaining the old people. But I don't really care what the venue is.
Oprah: Do you get anxious or feel threatened by new people coming on?
Jay: I feel threatened, and I welcome them. There's this big pie in show business, and you physically can't eat the whole pie. If you give everybody a slice of pie, you will still have more than enough. The real trick is not to try to get the whole pie, but to keep the biggest slice.
Oprah: Because you like winning, don't you?
Jay: I love winning! I'm a very competitive person. But I don't have to beat people into submission. I don't need to be the highest-paid guy on TV—that really doesn't matter to me. You can't spend all the money you make, anyway.
Oprah: I heard you've asked for less vacation.
Jay: I'm not a vacation guy. If I lose this job, I don't want it to be because I was lazy. I want it to be because I was incompetent or not very funny. When I was a kid, laziness was the worst crime. Once when I called home to talk with Ma, I found out that my dad had fallen off the roof and was in the hospital. So I hopped on a plane and flew home. When I got to the hospital at, like, 8:30 in the morning, I went to the front desk, chatted with the receptionist, and finally said, "Do you have a doctor's outfit?" So I put on the lab coat and hat and mask, and I walked into my dad's room and said, "What are you in here for?" He said, "You know, I've got this little thing...." I said, "We get a lot of guys like you in here." "What the hell does that mean?" he said. "I don't like your tone, fella." With my back to him, I said, "We get a lot of guys in here who've never worked a day in their lives, looking for a free meal and a bed." He jumped up and grabbed me by the throat and screamed, "You son of a bitch!" I said, "Pop, it's me!" It was hilarious! I'd said everything to push his buttons. Dad was just furious!
Oprah: Well, lazy you are not!
Jay: Don't forget, I'm in a field where the rewards are so huge compared to the amount of work I put in. If you work with disabled kids and you spend a year teaching a kid to tie his shoelace and then he forgets, that's a lot harder work than I do. My job is not that tough. There's not a lot of paperwork, and there's no lifting. It's just time-consuming.
Oprah: I got it. But how do you make your marriage work? Aren't you gone a lot?
Jay: Yes, but not for days. I always fly home the same night. And if I go somewhere interesting, Mavis goes with me.
Oprah: Didn't you once tell me that your marriage works because of the kind of woman Mavis is?
Jay: Yes. I think a woman's sexuality is in direct proportion to her intelligence.
Oprah: And you're married to a very smart woman.
Jay: I never quite understood the appeal of dumb women, since I can't spell. If I'm with somebody who can spell, then I look smart for free.
Oprah: You not only have a speller but a reader.
Jay: She's wonderful.
Oprah: Why do you think you've found happiness in your marriage?
Jay: Because there's nothing worth arguing about. I married a sensible, intelligent person, and if we want this thing to work bad enough, then it can. It's very logical.
Oprah: Would you say there's strong communication between the two of you?
Jay: I think so. Nothing was more fun than making my mom laugh or pleasing my mom. So I've transferred that to my wife. Now don't get it confused: I don't see my wife as my mom. But making her happy or making her laugh is a priority.
Oprah: My friend Gayle saw Mavis at one of your shows and said Mavis was laughing out loud at every one of your jokes.
Jay: That's nice. I know there are certain things that will always make my wife laugh—like anything involving the cat. If she's feeling sad, I will take the cat, go in the other room, and the cat and I will have a discussion. It's usually, "No, you can't have a dollar." Then the cat meows. I say, "Yeah, I'm sure the Kitty Council has a lot of power to make me do that." And then I hear her laugh!
Oprah: Did you both decide never to have kids?
Jay: Neither of us really wanted kids, so that was fine. We've been able to date a lot because of it.
Jay: Yes. I can say, "Honey, you want to go to Vegas tonight?" If we had kids, it would involve the sitter and this and that. Before I got The Tonight Show, we were on the road together all the time. I'd be onstage for an hour and a half, then we'd go have the rest of the time to ourselves.
Oprah: Would you say your relationship has matured into what I call grown-up love?
Jay: I think so. When I have one of these starlets on my show, I say to myself, "This woman wouldn't have talked to me when I was 22 and better looking. So why would she flirt with me now? There must be some ulterior motive." Yet it's fun to imagine and be flirtatious—I have the kind of job where my wife can turn on the TV and watch me flirt! But that's as far as it goes. That's why it works.
Oprah: Mavis obviously understands that you're a person who's driven.
Jay: Yes, and I support the things she does.
Oprah: Her organization was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Jay: I've always wanted a situation where people would go, "Oh, that's Mr. Mavis." That would make me laugh.
Oprah: It would?
Jay: Yeah. I've done what I want to do, and now it's my turn to help her. It's a matter of priorities, and it makes the marriage better. Remember, if you eat the whole pie, you're going to choke. I love it when she goes to these functions where people think she's just another empty-headed starlet, and afterward they go, "She knows what she's talking about."
Oprah: You're happily married and you have this great career. Would you say you're living the life of your dreams?
Jay: Oh, sure—but I'm always happy with whatever I have. If I can get something else, great. If I lose half of everything tomorrow, fine. That's why I don't buy anything on credit. If everything is over with now, I still have what I have. If everything ended tomorrow, I'd say, "Well, I did okay. That was a good run."