During his interrupted 22-year run as host of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno cared about one thing: jokes. On the day of a show, he often read jokes for up to five hours, right through rehearsal, culling them from 500 down to 150, and on and on, until he had assembled that night’s 14-minute monologue.
On Friday night, nine months after surrendering The Tonight Show to Jimmy Fallon, Leno returned to tell jokes. He did six minutes of stand-up — benign bits about flip phones, soccer and steroids. It wasn’t event television, but he displayed some of that aw-come-on attitude that made him one of the comedians of record during the 1980s. Often criticized as a joke delivery system uninterested in his own guests, Leno was almost human.
Leno has always been a better talk show guest than host. He was the most frequent and popular guest on Late Night with David Letterman (1982-93), making more than 60 appearances. Even after he became host of The Tonight Show, Leno was relaxed and interesting on Dennis Miller Live, candid on Politically Incorrect and then Real Time with Bill Maher and most at home last year with Jerry Seinfeld on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
There are two keys to a great talk show appearance by Leno — his relationship with the host and the more relaxed dress code. Leno came of age as a comedian with Letterman, Miller, Maher and Seinfeld in the 1970s and 80s. He knows them well. On their shows, Leno doesn’t wear a tie, and his hair is mussed. He is himself.
Leno was especially good with Miller on June 20, 1997, when the subject was the state of film. He ripped dumb, loud action movies like Speed 2 and Con Air. “It’s economics,” he said. “You can’t hire ushers to keep people quiet in the theater anymore. So if you just make the movie loud enough, then it doesn’t matter if people are talking, because you can’t hear what they’re saying anyway.” He praised the film-noir classic The Third Man and the small, independent Swingers. “I’m fascinated by the words people are saying,” he said. But “movies are now the equivalent of a vibrating sex object. Technically, it’s very good. There’s just no soul or emotion to it.”
The premise of Comedians in Cars is just what is says: two comedians hang out while driving a classic car — the perfect forum for Leno, who owns more than 250 vintage cars and motorcycles. When Leno appeared on the web series last season, he and Seinfeld reveled in its contrast to conventional talk shows.
SEINFELD: You can’t have a conversation like this in a real interview.
LENO: What is a Jay Leno? You have those kind of conversations. What makes you tick? I’m not ticking. I’m telling jokes. I’m not ticking.
SEINFELD: I’m not ticking.
LENO: Don’t say I’m ticking.
Leno isn’t done as a talk show guest. CBS announced last week that he will be the last guest on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on Dec. 19. Ferguson is leaving the show after almost 10 years. While Leno deserved the criticism he received for the coup of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, which was engineered by his former manager Helen Kushnick, and his role in Conan O’Brien quitting The Tonight Show four years ago, Ferguson has always been an opponent of the late night wars. The booking seems like a tribute to Leno’s years of late night service.
The most interesting version of Leno may be the hyper-realized one he played two years ago on the FX series Louie. On the show, Louis C.K. is auditioning to replace the retiring Letterman after a star-making performance on Leno. When Louie asks Leno if he should take the job, Leno say no. “You’re the hip guy,” he says. “You’re the cool guy. That used to be me. But then you got to do 14 minutes every single night. Nobody is hip every single night. I wish somebody had told me that.” It was a human moment.