A chat with Leno

By Noah Lopez
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 3, 1996

Arizona Daily Wildcat

By Doug Cummings


The Jay Leno story is pretty familiar to most.

The man with the chin took over the most popular talk show in history, had an overblown media feud with the man most feel should have been the true heir to said show, and went on to (eventually) gain respectable ratings that rival his only competition the aforementioned once true heir.

The personality details are familiar as well. Man with chin does clean, family comedy. Man with chin collects cars (30 of them) and motorcycles (40).

Why would an interview with the chinned one be so hard? After all, this is Mookie, the bit player in 1978's rock-and-roll comedy "American Hot Wax."

Unfortunately, this was not to be the easiest of interviews. As I waited for Jay Leno to pick up the phone for the interview, I was forced to listen to the "Saturday Night Live" theme (yes, I believe G.E. Smith could be heard) as hold music. Not a particularly good omen.

What followed was somewhat of a grueling experience, with Leno often seeming annoyed, aloof, bored and bothered at my questions. Sometimes even at my breathing. Maybe it wasn't his idea to do the interview. At any rate, halfway through my list of questions, I gave up and gave in. It was obvious that any sort of question other than those revolving around his white bread talk show was going to be greeted with indifference. Even questions about some of Leno's "loves" (i.e. his motorcycles) were met with a crazed bewilderment, as though it would be unheard of for anyone to ask him about such a topic.

I went in expecting Leno to be the nice, affable guy that he willingly portrays on TV. I left knowing that this was no weekend warrior. Jay Leno is a true rebel. The kind of hard ass that doesn't need to take nothin' from nobody. Jay Leno ... is kind of a jerk.

Mutato: What was the most embarrassing event or guest or incident that has happened on the show?

Jay Leno: What?

M: Uh ... I was just looking for an amusing anecdote I guess. Has anything embarrassing happened on the show?

JL: (sounding dumbfounded) Huh. Well. I accidentally walked into Julia Roberts' dressing when she was naked. That was a horrible experience. I relive that daily.

M: Who did you want to portray you in "The Late Shift?"

JL: Hmmm. I read the book, I didn't see the movie.

M: C'mon. You didn't have any ideas of who you would have liked to see as you?

JL: Oh. I mean, there were a lot of joke ideas. George Clooney did a funny impression of me on Saturday Night Live, and he's an attractive guy, so I mentioned him jokingly once.

M: Do you have any thoughts on "The Late Shift?"

JL: I'm fine with it. I make my living making fun of people. If I can't accept the same, I should get out of the business.

M: Do you ever go back and watch "American Hot Wax?"

JL: (sounding annoyed) No. I don't think I've seen it in 17 years. I mean, I saw it when it came out. I don't think I've seen it since.

M: Do you watch a lot of biker films?

JL: (sounding dumbfounded and annoyed) What?!?

M: You know ... motorcycle films.

JL: Uh, no. Those movies are just chopper films.

M: So, "Easy Rider" didn't inspire you and your wife to cross America in a mobile home?

JL: No, not really. "Easy Rider" is not really a biker film. It's more about two guys who... (trails off)

M: Do you identify with that whole "one man, one bike, one road mystique?"

JL: What?!?

M: You know, that whole romantic mystique about the motorcycle. Man and the road as one with the universe.

JL: (sounding annoyed) I like motorcycles, but, you know, stuff like putting cocaine in the gas tank doesn't excite me. I'm into technology. I don't have any interest in (the other stuff) at all. I'm not going to get a fake tattoo and pretend I'm something I'm not. I'm into making a motorcycle do the most it can do. Most choppers...you make a motorcycle do the least it can do. Why hack something to bits and pieces? Americans like that biker nonsense. "I'll be wild and crazy on the weekend."

M: Hmm. .. what's you're favorite bike then?

JL: My favorite? I like the Vincent Black Shadow a lot.

M: You know that's Hunter S. Thompson's favorite bike also.

JL: That's one of the sad things about that bike ... I guess he likes to do coke and ride motorcycles. There are some fascinating motorcycles out there. It's like, I like old cars. Now there are people who like an old car because Carole Lombard got laid in it. That means nothing to me. People always ask me if I've got any celebrity memorabilia. That doesn't do anything for me.

M: Twenty years ago, when you were making films like "American Hot Wax," did you ever think you'd be where you are now, as one of the kings of late night TV?

JL: Well, that's sort of an odd little phrase. I always enjoyed what phase of the business I was in at the time. If I was doing clubs, I liked it. When I was doing Letterman shows, I thought, "This is pretty good." The real trick to success in show business is you either like playing the game, or you don't. If this had come at any other time I don't think I'd appreciate it as much.

M: Do you keep close tabs on the other shows, Dave's and Conan's?

JL: I watch Dave a couple of nights a week. I like David. I got my break on David's show. People like to hear you badmouth the competition, but there are plenty of nights I watch his show and think, "Wow, that was a funny bit." Then there are nights I think, "I like our bit better." I think the competition benefits the viewers. If there was only one show on the air, people would suffer.

M: If I gave you a hundred dollars, would you join the Beatles for a reunion tour of Europe?

JL: (sounding really pissed off) WHAT?

M: Uh, never mind. It was just kind of a joke question.

JL: (possibly threatening tone) No. Repeat it.

M: Well, if I, uh, gave you a hundred dollars ... would you join the Beatles for a reunion tour of Europe?

(long silence)

JL: You know, I think a hundred dollars means a lot to, say, a college student, but it doesn't mean much to someone in show business.

I hung up the phone, a slight tear forming in my eye.