"You know, when you're 40 and you're talking to a 25-year-old supermodel, it's sexy. When you're 64 and you're talking to the supermodel, you're the creepy old guy," says Leno, who is in fact 64 and is now almost a year removed from giving up the venerable TV franchise for good last February.
Put another way:
"OK, you know, I'm sorry, I don't know Jay-Z's music. And at my age, if I did know Jay-Z's music, there's something wrong with me."
Maybe true. But there's nothing wrong with Leno's devotion to funny, as he'll doubtless prove Thursday night when he takes to the stage at the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric for a night of stand-up comedy to help Baltimore's oldest commercial theater building celebrate its 120th anniversary.
Fact is, Leno's always been a stand-up kind of comedian. Even when he was hosting "Tonight" every weeknight, Leno never stopped doing stand-up two or three nights a week. Then, it was an opportunity to try out new material and stay sharp. Now, it's once again his preferred venue for performing — maybe not like in the old days, pre-"Tonight," when he was onstage nearly every night. But he's still averaging about 200 gigs a year.
"I've always been a stand-up," Leno says over the phone from his garage, taking a break from working on his legendary vehicle collection (he owns about 135, he says) to talk about his trip to Baltimore. "I was a stand-up comedian who was lucky enough to get a TV show, and was lucky that it lasted 22 years."
Obviously, his hosting benefited from the skills that got him the gig in the first place — few would dispute that he was one of the premier stand-ups of his generation, counting among his contemporaries people like Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman. His opening monologues were basically stand-up routines that changed every day, as he skewered politicians, celebrities and anybody else who landed on his (and his writers') radar screen.
But these days, the pace is much more relaxed, Leno says. Instead of coming up with new jokes every day, he can hone his act, picking out the jokes that work, working on his timing and giving audiences a finely tuned evening of road-tested comedy.
" 'The Tonight Show' was fun because, if something happened on Monday, you could do a joke about it Monday night. But then on Tuesday, if you go, 'Ah, I've got a better ending for that joke' — you can never do it again. You can't work out material; it's disposable, you just do it as quickly as it comes in.
"So nowadays, yeah, it's fun to work out material. You get excited about adding a new joke or a new bit or whatever it might be. It's actually quite rewarding."
If Leno sounds like he's reveling in his post-"Tonight' career, he is. It's got to be easier than the roller-coaster ride he endured from 2009 to 2014. During that time, he handed over "Tonight" to Conan O'Brien and began his own 10 p.m. show on NBC. Then, after ratings for neither show were doing anyone any favors, he was given back "Tonight" and O'Brien left in a huff, eventually landing at TBS. Last February, Leno finally handed over "Tonight" for good, this time to Jimmy Fallon.
Not that he's left the talk-show world behind. Just last month, he appeared on Fallon's "Tonight" show — it was hard to decide whether fellow guest Lucy Liu was more interested in talking to Fallon or Leno — and was the only guest on "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" when it signed off Dec. 19.
"I watch Jimmy Fallon, and he's terrific," Leno says. "Each host puts their own sort of label on the show. Mine was politics and the monologue. Jimmy, it's certainly the monologue, but it's also the viral videos and the parodies and all the other stuff. … Sure, it was fun to go on and tease Jimmy and attack him."
And what of Leno's erstwhile friend, and later competitor, David Letterman? Although there appears to have been little love lost between the pair since 1992, when NBC chose Leno over Letterman to succeed longtime "Tonight" host Johnny Carson, both men have downplayed any feud in recent interviews, each saying they consider the other a friend.
When Letterman had his "Late Night" show on NBC from 1982 to 1993, before he left for CBS and "The Late Show," it was always a treat when he had Leno on as a guest. The two played off each other beautifully, Letterman prodding Leno to talk about what was bothering him, Leno getting Letterman to laugh, goading him like some irreverent schoolyard chum. Five years ago, when Letterman persuaded Leno to appear with him and Oprah Winfrey in a CBS promotional spot, it appeared for a moment that maybe the magic could be rekindled.
Maybe it still can. "I really enjoyed doing those," Leno says of his appearances on Letterman's NBC show, during a time when many of the old-guard talk shows were winding down and new blood was being recruited to take their place. "It was the first time that the host and the guest, for me, were the same age. When you're on with Johnny [Carson], or Merv Griffin, or even Mike Douglas, there was a certain reverential attitude you had to have. … Being with Dave, my natural inclination was always to be the smartass.
"With Johnny, you didn't want to be the smartass, it's impolite. But with Dave, you could go, 'Shut up, Dave. What are you doing?' And he would get that sort of bemused look. It was great."
So would Leno be agreeable to appearing on "The Late Show" before Letterman retires in May?
"I don't know. We'll see what happens," he says, sounding not at all like someone trying to bat down an idea.
Much as Leno enjoys life back on the road, however, it almost seems as if he's leading a double life nowadays. Much of his free time is spent in his garage — when we caught up with him, he was working one of his prizes, a 1924 Ace motorcycle ("the fastest American motorcycle of their day," he notes with pride).
"Jay Leno's Garage" already is a fixture on nbc.com and on Youtube, where a new video is promised every week. Later this year, new episodes of "Jay Leno's Garage" will begin airing on CNBC.
Maybe he'd enjoy being America's mechanic as much, if not more, than America's funnyman?
"I enjoy doing both," Leno says. "The one thing about comedy is, it's subjective. Some people think you're funny, some people think you're not, and they're both correct. But when something's broken and you fix it, you make it run — no one can say it's not running."
It's easy to see why Leno enjoys the certainty of vehicle repair and maintenance. After years of people arguing whether he was funny or not, whether he should have gotten the "Tonight" gig or Letterman deserved it more, whether he and NBC were unfair to Conan O'Brien or simply making the best out of a bad situation, it's nice to be doing something that is inarguable.
Plus, it makes Leno appreciate how lucky he is still to be making people laugh for a living.
"When you work with your hands, you get an appreciation of how easy it is to tell a joke and make a living at it," he says. "Show business is like Champagne — if you drink it every day, you become an alcoholic. You can't do it. But if you come to your garage and work, and then twice a week you go do some show-business thing, it becomes special."
If you go
Jay Leno will be doing stand-up at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $45-$200. Information: 410-900-1150 or lyricoperahouse.com.