LOS ANGELES – If quitting the legendary role of host of “The Tonight Show” requires retirement, Jay Leno has ignored the memo.
Since ending his longtime late-night gig in 2014, Leno has maintained a steady pace. He appears regularly in television projects of fellow comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Wilmore, Tim Allen, Dennis Miller and others.
His passion for anything that has wheels and an engine is on display in “Jay Leno’s Garage,” back September 22 on CNBC. And he’s got a new game show, a syndicated reboot of “You Bet Your Life,” which will debut on Monday (check local listings for times, stations).
“Everything that went on ‘The Tonight Show’ was gravy,” Leno said. “So the fact that I have something to do is fun.”
“You Bet Your Life” first aired from 1950 to 1961 with famous comedian Groucho Marx, followed by a short-lived remake in 1992 with Bill Cosby. In the new version, Leno shares host duties with Kevin Eubanks, the former leader of the “Tonight” group who gleefully teased the comedian when a joke fell flat.
“People seem to love this camaraderie because we’re friends and we know each other,” Leno said.
One of the temporary jobs for Leno, guest judge on “America’s Got Talent” in 2019, had serious repercussions. He was convicted of making an unreleased joke about Koreans based on a racist stereotype, and then apologized.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Leno discussed following in the footsteps of a great comedy game show, what makes a good candidate, and the risks of topical humor. Notes have been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
PA: Why add game show to your plate?
Leno: It seems the time has come for this kind of show. It’s really light and it’s fun and has no politics involved. And it’s very diverse. We have people from all walks of life: black, white, from Nigeria, from India. But there is never any stupid stereotypical nonsense, it’s just people getting together and trying to make some money. And it was really a lot of fun. We shoot six episodes a day and they just steal because it’s all improvised. I don’t see the competitors before the show. There is no public relations manager who says, “Don’t mention the cocaine use or my client’s divorce. You don’t get any of that.
PA: Candidates are more media savvy than they were in Groucho Marx‘s time, and more likely to perform on camera. How does this affect the show?
Leno: When you’re doing a show in LA, the cheapest and most efficient way to do it is to get people within 10 miles of the studio, (and) if they’re not in show business, they have a connection with this one. In the last year, we’ve sent pollsters to Florida, Louisiana, everywhere, and we’ve flown people in. We choose the ones that look like characters. And you really see when they come in here they’re like, “This is my first time in LA and oh my God.” There is an excitement and nervousness that you don’t get in people who run into Brad Pitt every day at the grocery store.
PA: You were a kid when ‘You Bet Your Life’ aired. Did watching Marx inspire you as a comedian?
Leno: He’s always been my favorite brother Marx because I’ve never been a “put on a funny hat, throw a pie” comedian. I’ve always liked people with verbal skills: Bob Newhart, Johnny Carson. I liked people who looked normal but said funny things, instead of putting on costumes. I liked the Marx Brothers movies, but I liked Groucho because he was the wise man.
PA: Do you miss the animation of a late night show and the forum it gave you for comedy?
Leno: It was very fun. I enjoyed doing the monologue, it’s my favorite part. And I appreciate everyone that’s out there now. I watch the monologues, and I don’t watch the interviews too much, because I talked to this guy (the celebrity). But I really appreciate how hard it is to make a different version of the same joke every night. Because let’s be honest, the news doesn’t change much from one day to the next. It changes from week to week. And then you have to watch all the other shows, make sure you don’t have the same joke as Conan or Samantha Bee or whatever.
PA: You said that the comedy does not change, but the targets do. When you look back at the jokes that drew criticism, do you say ‘those were the days’ or do you scowl?
Leno: When people were in the headlines, you used to make jokes about the news. I can give you a good example. When Amy Winehouse, who was on “The Tonight Show,” sang that song on “I Won’t Go To Rehab,” there were a lot of jokes about it. Then she died and people said, “Jay Leno made a joke.” But I did it with her blessing, she was there (on ‘Tonight’) when I did. But, you know, you only live in the time that you live.