Road Work Ahead
Veteran comedian Jay Leno splits his time between cars and jokes

By Lee Valentine Smith

Jay Leno hosted the Tonight Show for the better part of two decades but for the past few years his enduring passion for vintage car restoration has been his main gig. As the host of Jay Leno’s Garage on CNBC, the veteran comedic actor indulges in his automotive hobby to impressive ratings and renewal notices. During breaks in production, he continues to travel the country with his stand-up act, a job he’s held since the late ‘70s. He returns to Atlanta this month and Insite tracked him down at his airplane hangar-sized “garage” near beautiful downtown Burbank, California.

Congratulations on the renewal for Jay’s Garage. After the Tonight Show, you weren’t tired of television?

It’s been kinda fun. I definitely wanted to do something that wasn’t the Tonight Show. Sometimes people make the mistake of coming back with a new show that’s like half the budget of the last show and they never work. Lightninging usually doesn’t strike twice. Some people can do it. Bob Newhart and Tim Allen both came back with new hit shows.

Your fascination with cars is well documented and it seems the evolution of the show has been fairly organic.

Ten or eleven years ago now, we started on the web with a little car show. It was mostly technical but it became You Tube’s third biggest automotive show. I thought, “Well why don’t we try it on network and see what happens?” It’s a bit more general now, with celebrity guests and a little more entertainment value.

Do people still approach you with cars for sale at this point?

Every second of the day. It’s hilarious. You get everything from real enthusiasts to people who go, “My mom has a Pinto from the ‘70s.” Um, well they’re really not that rare. “Oh no, this is one of a kind!” We’ve gone from the day when you could find a worthless piece of junk that turned out to be worth a million dollars, to now, when people think every worthless piece of junk is worth a million dollars.

How’s your collection at the moment? Have you hit the 300 mark yet?

Not yet. I guess there’s about 160 cars now. And some aren’t really all that valuable, some are just cars I like with great stories. A lot of times, I’ll buy the story as much as I’ll buy the car. That’s been one great thing with the show, too. We’ll have a theme like “dad’s cars,” and find cars that mean a lot to people because their dad had one.

The proliferation of car-centric shows is definite proof that people are obsessed with automobiles.

I’m getting a little tired of the shows with the guys with tattoos and they’ll throw tools at each other. But the only bad thing about so many car shows is that people will sometimes think you can restore a car in a week. People kinda get a false hope that you can restore a vintage car by Wednesday and of course you can’t. These cars were built when technology was expensive and labor was cheap, now it’s all flipped around. There’s so much labor involved. You can play with the radio for five hours and you still might not get it to work, and that’s a lot of money and effort for nothing.

At the core, a car is just a tool for transportation, but they become part of the family. Almost an appendage.

Yeah, they were sort of the iPhone of the day. Kids go places now virtually. A guy sits in his room and texts his girlfriend: “send me a naked picture.” Ok, done. But in my day, you had to get in the car, go to the girl’s house, make sure her parents were out of town, somehow convince the girl to take her clothes off, take the picture and then drive three towns over to a drugstore to develop the picture where they didn’t know your family. Then when you got the pictures back, they’d be black bars over all the good parts!

That’s a lot of work. But it’s like the old adage that if you ask someone a question enough times, someone will eventually say yes.

Or a guy with a line that, you know, may have worked in the ‘80s and they continue to use it.

Now that you aren’t doing the Tonight Show are you playing more live shows?

I was on the road around 150 days a year when we were doing the show. Now I’ll do around 200. I was a stand-up before the Tonight Show and I just continue to do it. “You always want to have a trade,” as my dad would say. But you know, TV is so tenuous, you never quite know what’s going to happen. And you need 160 people to do it. With the live show it’s great, you’re just out there on your own. I still like it.

And it’s a great way to work out new material.

Yeah, the Tonight Show was great because something would happen in the world and you’d have a joke about it that night. But then the next day, maybe you’ve got a better joke or funnier punchline or a better set-up for the same thing. But you can’t tell it again because you just told it last night. On the road, a joke you tried out on Monday is a little better by Wednesday and by the weekend, you’ve really got it down. You can take a ten or fifteen-second joke and turn it into a two or three-minute story.

Do you still enjoy working up new stuff?

I used to open for people like Tom Jones and often the same fans would come to see his show over and over and by the end of the week, they’d just be sitting there, eating bon-bons, waiting for Tom Jones. A comic’s worst nightmare. I said, if it ever gets the point where people are coming to see me, I’ll try to work hard and keep the material fresh. And really it’s just fun to tell jokes. I don’t find it work, I enjoy it. I think most comedian’s lives are like Groundhog Day, you keep telling the same jokes but you just get better at it.

Jay Leno performs at the Cobb Energy Center on Saturday Feb 18 at 8 p.m.

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