Leno: Comedian, Car Collector, and Concours Compatriot
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.
You have about 70 cars, ranging from Lamborghinis to a Hispano-Suiza,
a Mustang fastback coupe and two Stanley Steamers. Which is your
A: I don’t have one. Every one of them is different from modern
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
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
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
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
Q: Your favorite comedian?
A: I’ve always liked Jack Benny.
Quotable Notables: Extra! Inspiration
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!