“I’m not here to bash Conan O’Brien,” says Jay Leno, the former host of the venerable The Tonight Show and veteran of the late-night wars. “But when the network tells you ‘this isn’t working, you have to change it,’ ” and you don’t change it, they make changes.” Calling from Los Angeles in advance of his Massey Hall show on April 30, the lead-with-his-chin funnyman spoke to The Globe about comedy, the business of television and what’s Jack Paar for the course.
On your episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, you guys spoke a bit about why comedians do what they do. Do you feel comics are over-analyzed?
Sometimes people look a little too deeply into this. It’s a lot of fun to tell jokes. That’s why Jerry and get I get along so well. We like being comics. Most comics want to be actors or a singer or just anything other than comics. They don’t have the respect for the art form. Oh, they’d rather have a part in a Law & Order episode where they play a defence attorney and they have 20 lines. Really? I mean, you can have a whole stage for an hour, that you’ve written, produced and directed yourself or you can do 20 minutes in a TV show. Why is that better? I don’t quite get it.
What’s your take on the recent social media flap, where one of Conan O’Brien’s writers complained about late-night television today, seemingly referring to what Jimmy Fallon is doing with your old show?
It’s interesting. I remember when I took over The Tonight Show. Someone sent me an article from 1969. Johnny [Carson] had taken over in ’62. He had been on the air for seven years, and this article was titled “When is Jack Paar coming back?” This person was bemoaning the fact that Jack Paar would have an hour-long interview with Noel Coward, and Johnny was doing little skits. But, of course, Johnny’s rating were five times what Jack Paar’s were. So, that’s what happens. Something comes along and just changes the standard.
Conan subsequently tweeted that he wished the writer would focus on making his show funnier instead of tweeting stupid things about the state of late-night. Was that a bit harsh?
I think the problem is, in the general public’s mind, they don’t know the writer. So they immediately put the blame on Conan, as if it were coming from him. So, no, I think Conan’s response was perfectly valid. I mean, I wouldn’t want one of my people commenting under my name. Because, in this case, the comment goes back to Conan.
When it comes to changing hosts, is it a generational and demographics thing?
Everybody who had The Tonight Show left when it was No. 1. Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and me. At some point I shouldn’t have to know all of Jay Z’s music. At age 64, I shouldn’t really be upset about Zayn leaving One Direction. I mean, the fact that I even know he left is a sad indictment.
You didn’t mention Conan in your lists of hosts. Do you regret how it all went down – the succession, the time-slot conflicts and you coming back to host?
I have to laugh, the things I would read. I remember one article said, “Leno demands show back. NBC has to give it to him.” Well, no they didn’t. How did I lose it in the first place? I’ve read every possible theory on what happened. You know, I was an evil genius and I went behind the scenes to get the show back. No, we got the show back because the network said, “We want you to go back.” I said, “Okay, fine, if that’s what you want.” It’s as simple as that.
But do you have regrets?
Do I wish things had worked out differently? Would I still like to be friends with Conan? Of course I would. Yes. But I’m not sure how it could have happened differently.
Your critics would say you should have turned the network down.
Why? Because Conan and I were good friends? No. At that point … it’s a business decision. I’m sure it could have been handled differently. But I think it was a matter of letting things take its course. If Conan’s ratings would have been fine, it wouldn’t have been an issue. It wouldn’t have come up.
What about the way you make light of your reputation? With a skit you did on The Late Late Show recently, it’s like you’re embracing the role of the bad guy.
Well, you know, it’s a quick punchline. It’s a joke. When I give James Corden bad advice, and go “I give him three months and the show will be mine,” and then I laugh maniacally? I guess. But it’s just a silly joke. I don’t know how else you end the skit.
What about the damage to your reputation?
Someone came up to me once and told me, “I don’t like you, but I like your jokes.” And I said, “Oh, you like the product but not the manufacturer.” And you know what? I’ll take that.
Jay Leno plays Massey Hall, April 30, 8 p.m. $49.50 to $199.50. 178 Victoria St., 416-872-4255 or masseyhall.com.