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Quotable Notables:  EXTRA! Inspiration

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Jay Leno: Comedian, Car Collector, and Concours Compatriot

Jay Leno's assistant, Helga, laughed at the prospect of a one-hour interview with him.

“I’m lucky to get three minutes in passing,” she said. “But he has a hard time saying ‘no.’”

So she arranged a phone interview, “For five minutes. But be prepared in case he gives you 10.”

Drat! I rearranged the 20 questions I’d devised, leading with the 10 most burning. Good thing the others were still on screen when I reached him in Los Angeles.

“Hi, Susan. What’s up?” he said and talked with such buoyancy I could sense him smiling. He continued joking and talking for nearly 25 minutes, right down to the last question.

The 50-year-old native New Yorker and host of the No. 1 late-night talk show, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” is a busy man. He has published a few books, entertained thousands of military troops and performed in front of live audiences regularly in Las Vegas and on college campuses.

But one of his greatest affairs is with the cars and motorcycles he collects and restores. Thus, he has a high profile at the prestigious Concours d’ Elegance in Pebble Beach where, for years, he has shown his cars and announced for the raffle drawing. “It was three years before I realized it was a golf course,” he joked.

Q: You have about 70 cars, ranging from Lamborghinis to a Hispano-Suiza, a Mustang fastback coupe and two Stanley Steamers. Which is your favorite?
A: I don’t have one. Every one of them is different from modern to antique.

Q: Your father was an insurance salesman. What did he drive?
A: My parents had a 1949 Plymouth. I remember sliding down the banister showing off. I fell from the second floor and cracked my back. It was raining and the car smelled like wet mohair on the way to the hospital.

Q: Was that your worst car memory? Do you have a best?
A: The day I got my driver’s license was the greatest. The worst was when I rolled mom’s car. The roof completely collapsed. I had to climb out the window. At 11:30 at night I had to wake up my dad. He said, “I’m asleep. Was it serious?” I didn’t want to say the whole roof was crashed in. Then he looked out the window and I heard, “What the hell?! It’s bent.” I’d driven it home by lying on the floor peeking out the window.

Q: You have two full-time mechanics, but also work on your cars. How do you keep your fingernails clean?
A: You have to scratch Lava soap like you’re trying to escape and use a bristle nailbrush.

Q: Regarding your book, “Leading with my Chin,” did you inherit your chin? Were you teased as a kid?
A: Yeah. I guess you could purchase one now. It probably runs on the Italian side of the family.

Q: What are you still insecure about?
A: I’ve always been somewhat dyslexic. I was never a particularly good student. My mother’s great refrain was, “You’re going to have to try a bit harder than other kids.” Even on the Tonight Show, I get words out of order.

Q: Your wife, Mavis, is involved in Afghanistan women’s rights. Have you always been an egalitarian male?
A: I think so. I never quite understood the appeal of going out with stupid women. Why carry their baggage and mine? A number of times, uncountable, my wife has saved my rear. To me, smart people always marry people smarter than them . . . Women’s sexuality is sort of inverse to their intelligence . . . It’s sexier for a woman to know what she’s really all about. When they’re dumb, all they have is their sexuality. I don’t want it that badly. It’s not that big of a deal. Sex only lasts so long. Then you’ll have to talk to this person . . .

Q: What ticks you off?

A: I’m not a big fan of voice mail. It’s annoying. I don’t want to go through a menu when I’m calling about a bill or reservations. You cannot thank information. There was this incident in the market where I said to the checker, “How are you doing? It’s a busy day.” Nothing. I give her money and say, “Thank you.” Nothing. So I say, “Don’t say thanks.” Then she finally says, “It’s on your receipt, sir.”

Q: So you’re not too high tech?
A: That’s why I like stand-up comedy. You’re talking directly to people. We keep it decidedly low tech. When I was a kid, once a month there was a town meeting. No work got done, but at least you got to visit with other people in town. When I bought a house in Beverly Hills, I bought a bottle of wine and went next door to introduce myself. A person answered the door and said, “Oh, the people are not here right now.” A couple weeks later, the neighbor says, “Could you not give liquor to the help.” Nobody knows their neighbors in LA . . .

Q: Any formula for getting stars to talk?
A: No. Just sort of common sense . . .

Q: What legendary stars have been the most difficult to interview?
A: You don’t really blame anybody. Some people have a gift for conversation. It’s not their fault if they’re not good raconteurs. There was an 18-year-old super model on the show. I noticed her hand was shaking. She was frightened to death. Maybe it wasn’t a great interview but it was real . . .

Q: Favorite memory of Johnny Carson?
A: My first goes back to 12 years old watching him . . . I liked Johnny’s jokes. Also, I like people who look normal but are funny.

Q: But how about Phyllis Diller?
A: She had to use a gimmick. It was the same with ethnic and black comics. They had to do self-degradation. It was a terrible time. Back then if you wanted to get on, you had to do silly jokes.

Q: How can you own a Porsche 911 and not speed?
A: I don’t own one. I have the kind of cars you work on and then drive 10 minutes. Not that you get there fast. People are amazed that you’re physically able to arrive at all.

Q: Most life-altering thing you’ve experienced?
A: That’s coming up next week.

Q: Been through male menopause?
A: Not yet. I’ve never come out of the teenage thing . . .

Q: When do you wish to be invisible?
A: I wouldn’t be in show business if not. I don’t mind talking to people. When odd characters come up and ask questions, it’s different from when you’re some handsome movie star . . . Being recognized helps me get good tables in restaurants and people let me into their lane in traffic.

Q: You accepted the 1997 Meguiar’s Award as Collector Car Hobby’s Person of the Year. Why don’t you usually accept awards?
A: Hollywood gets a bit silly. You could conceivably get two a week. You get one just for coming to a thing.

Q: What will you die from and at what age?
A: I don’t know when, but it will have something to do with water. Maybe water on the lawn, but I’ve always known it would be water.

Q: Your favorite comedian?
A: I’ve always liked Jack Benny.

Quotable Notables: Extra! Inspiration

Jay Leno will not be included in my book StarWords because, as far as I know, he does not now, nor has he ever been a Monterey County resident. However, this interview I did with him, on August 18, 2000, came to mind today when I read the Monterey County Herald newspaper.

Apparently, Leno made a personal phone call to a woman to apologize for a wounding joke he had made. And this wasn’t the first time he’d humbled himself and apologized to a viewer.

This legitimized the impression I’d had of him on the phone: nice guy, very nice guy. And if not for his very nice assistant, Helga, I’d never have gotten to this busy celebrated man.

I’m usually sweating bullets when I interview stars, but he put me at ease instantly with his sincerity. I liked what he said about women and sex. And, apparently, so did the newspaper. They chose to pull out and bold the quote he made about women’s sexuality being inverse to their intelligence.

I liked the way he “took it on the chin” with my interrogation.

What a guy!



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