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Interview Transcripts












MJ: Jay Leno, thank you for joining us today.

JL: Thank you. Thank you very much.

MJ: You just finished your show, tell us about it, and how you feel.

JL: Well, fine.  I have to do another one tomorrow, so you don't really,

it's not like... You know, there's a show here called Saturday Night Live

here in America, it's on once a week. And I brought a friend of mine that I

grew up with, who is not in show business. And he came to the show, and

afterwards, they'd have a party, you know. And he came to this show one

night, and he said, "Hey, any chance my wife and I can go with you to the

party?" And I go, " What party? We have another one tomorrow, and the... "

We have a show every day. We don't have parties after every show. You'd go

nuts if you did that, so..

MJ: Most of our viewers haven't seen the show. Could you tell us what it's


JL: Well, I guess it's essentially a talk show. The show opens with

hopefully humorous comments about what happened in the world that day, or

stories in the news, then we will go to a comedy sketch, usually something

physical, because you've just done a monologue, where you're standing there

talking, then you go some sort of physical comedy, then we'll go to a

commercial. Then we come back, and there'll be another comedy sketch,

usually a little bit longer, about five minutes in length, and then we go

to commercial after that, then we come back, we bring out the guest. And it

becomes a talk show.

MJ: Every night you have how many guests?

JL: Two or three. Once in a while you'll have one, but not very often.

American's attention spans is very small.

MJ: Tell us about following in the steps of Johnny Carson, who was a

legendary American public figure.

JL: Well, that's pretty hard to do. You just try to make your own road,

obviously. You know, you just do what you do. When we first started, it was

a little tricky, because obviously people had grown to know and love

Johnny, who was on for 30 years, so, you know, you kind of do what he does,

and then slowly try to bring it in your own direction.

MJ: What kind of things did you begin to change as you took over the show

from him?

JL: Well, we tried to put more and more comedy into the show. These days

there are a lot of talk shows in America, so a lot of times guests... the

audience has heard the guest speak about what you're talking about, two or

three times before they get to you. Sot the idea of just sitting there

talking about something, well, it's kind of old hat, it just seems slow,

you know. Now with MTVand  all those kinds of things, things seem to move a

little quicker, so we try to put more sketches, more cutaways, try to get

out of the studio more to do more things on the street. 

MJ: You do a lot of political comedy, jokes about politicians. Do you get

feedback from people? Are people angry, upset about their favorite people

being attacked or joked about?

JL: Once in while, but that's good. As long as you hear from both sides

equally. Is that popular in Japan, do they do that?

MJ: I don't think so. No, not like you do.

JL: Well it's different. You know, different cultures react different ways.

I find, and you tell me if I'm wrong, because I don't know, but from what

I've seen, the Japanese seem to like really broad, over the top, you know,

like I've seen those things... What's that television show where these

people have to do these impossible things... you know just humiliating

stunts and things. You know the show I'm...

MJ: There's a bunch of them.

JL: Well, that's what I mean. It's interesting, you know. Any culture where

the people are very reserved and very polite, their comedy seems to be very

much forward. Like the British. The British are very reserved, and they

like all that "Bonk,"  poke them in the eye, physical fall down stuff, and

from what I've seen of Japanese television, they seem to like to, because,

all the Japanese people at least that we meet here, are very polite, and

very reserved, and very nice, you know, not given to fits of emotion and

yelling and screaming, and you know, that type of thing, so consequently,

the comedy is very "aaaah," you know, get it all out, and that makes me


MJ: There are people who say you represent middle America, what they're

thinking. Tonight you had a joke about President Clinton maybe not being

reelected. Is that a sense that you're picking up from being out in the

country, or where does that come from?

JL: Well, you don't change anybody's mind with comedy, you just reinforce

what they already believe. And if a politician is popular, and you do a

joke against them, "Boo." If a politician, people think he's kind of

wishy-washy, and you do a joke about him being wishy-washy, then they

laugh. You're not doing anything brave here, you're just reinforcing what

they already think, you know.

MJ: Do you ever hear back from the president or anybody else like that?

JL: Well, if you start getting angry letters from the president... Believe

me, if the president doesn't have anything better to do than to write a

comedian, I think then we're all in a lot of trouble. No, I mean, doing

political jokes isa lot like dealing with the mob. You don't go after wives

or family, you just keep it with the person, you know. I mean, if the

president says something, and you do a joke about it, that's fine. We're

not making up facts. We're not, you know... I would never do jokes about

the president's children because they're not in the limelight, they're not

elected, they're not out there making policy or speaking. Even the first

lady, we don't really do, unless she speaks publicly on an issue, or says

something about something that we can comment on, you know. But usually,

just kinda stick it to the president, or the senator,  whoever.

MJ: What makes a good guest?

JL: Anyone from England is usually a pretty good guest. The English have a

theater background. They know how to talk. They know how to project. They

stand on a stage, they know how to reach people without a microphone, most

of them, so when you do have a microphone, that makes it that much easier.

A lot of times, Americans, especially, movie stars, many of them have never

been in from of a live audience, so they come out and they go like this.

You know, I mean they're surprised there are people out there, and they're

not quite sure how to react. But usually anybody that has a good story

telling background, with a beginning, middle, and end, that's  a pretty

good guest.

MJ: How did you get into show business?

JL: How?  Well, I grew up in a very small town, as far away from show

business as you could possibly be.

MJ: On the east coast?

JL: On the east coast, yeah. In New England; Massachusetts. I guess I did

it in college. And you know, Boston has something like, you know, 100 or

150 schools and colleges. So consequently you had a lot of students with no

money willing to be entertained by people with no talent. I mean, there

was... You know, it didn't cost them anything but the people weren't any

good either, so it was a good trade off.  And I figured I would do that

until I had to get a real job. And luckily I never had to get a real job.

MJ: We saw your car outside, you're an avid car collector. Tell us about

your cars.

JL: I like anything mechanical. I'd like a 1969 Toyota 2000 GT would be

good- my favorite Japanese car.  I...you know when you... I used to work at

auto dealerships, and when you work with your hands, it gives you an

appreciation of how easy it is to make money doing this. You know, Whenever

I see celebrities go, "Aach, back-breaking work, it's horrible," you know. 

And then you go down to a mechanic, and you look at hands, you know, all

chewed up, and you go, "Oh, that's a tough way to make a living." And plus

when you work with mechanical things, you know when you're done. You know,

you don't really know that in show business, because you have another show

tomorrow, or another movie, or something. So when you fix something and it

works, well, you're done. Now you're done with that, you know what I mean?

It's  a sense of... It's just calming to me. It's cheaper and more fun than

drugs or alcohol.

MJ: What's a typical day like for you. People imagine that you just show up

at the show and then go home, but it's a full day, right?

JL: No, I get here about 8:30, and throughout the day you're writing jokes,

and you know, doing things related to the show; a celebrity dropped out or

something, or you're shooting sketches. Then we tape from 5:00 to 6:00,

then there's usually something from 6: 30 to 8:00, and then about 9:30 I go

home, and we write the jokes for tomorrow till about 2:00 in the morning,

so, excuse me, it's a long day. It's fun, but it's long.

MJ: So in one monologue, how many jokes do you prepare, for a monologue.

JL: Well, you start with hopefully, two or three hundred, and you try to

pare it down to maybe 25 to 30.

MJ: And how many of those are yours, and how many are your writers and


JL: It's all... You mix them up. The ones that are funny are mine, the ones

that don't work are submitted by others. No, no. You know It's a

collaborative effort, really. You... A lot of times someone has a funny

idea, but they don't quite have a punchline, so it'll be, "Oh," you know, 

"I'll put this in there." Sometimes a joke is perfect as given, sometimes

you'll... I'll say, "Submit ideas. Here's a thing that was in the paper."

You know, "woman did this, man arrested for this." "Ah, that's funny. I'll

make a joke about that." So we all work together. I don't really count who

has the most in, you know.

MJ: Do you have any way of predicting or knowing if a joke is going to

work? Do you try it out  on somebody?

JL: Well, I mean, that's why you get this job. If you had no idea if a joke

 would work, you wouldn't last really more than a week. "I have no idea" I

mean, if you think it's funny, you to... You know, I work all around the

country, and you do colleges, and you do nightclubs, and you go to the

mid-west, and you go to... You know, if a joke works in Chicago, and the

South and the East, and the West, and the North, then it'll probably work

when you get here. You just have...You learn to figure out what is

appropriate or inappropriate, or  good taste or bad taste.

MJ: You take the show on the road a lot. Your predecessors didn't do that

as often as you do.

JL: No,well, no, not very much.

MJ: Why do you like going on the road?

JL: Well, again, I don't come from a broadcasting background, I come from a

nightclub background. This new set that we're in now, it's been in here

about a year and a few months, reflects more of a nightclub. You know, you

get right out into the audience, and you tell jokes with people standing

all around you, and you can shake hands, or slap people around if you have

to, whatever needs to be done, you know. And you know, when people sit home

and watch t.v. you know, they have that remote like this, you know.

"Click." You know, if it starts to slow down for them, you know, they

change channels. So if you go to a new city and give the show a new look,

it keeps them hanging on that much longer.

MJ: Most of our viewers probably don't know David Letterman either. You

guys are both on at the same time.

JL: Right.

MJ: What is that? What is the dynamic there? How does that.....

JL: Oh, that's the other show, very similar to this one. Both are very good

shows. David's very talented. I'm not sure how it works in Japan. Do you

have competing networks?  

MJ: Do you ever watch his show?

JL: All the time. He does a terrific show. Does a terrific show. You know,

there's this odd tendency in America, and again, I don't know if they do

this in Japan, but like with sports teams, to sort of trash talk the other

guy, and, you know, say terrible things, and whatever. And that's not the

case here. I generally like their show. That's not so say that we don't go

in and try to knock each other out of the ring. But there's a way to do it,

I think that's... They don't say anything bad about us, we don't say

anything bad about them. I like their show. It's a good show.  I mean 

competition I think makes things better.

MJ: How has your show changed because of that competition? Is there

anything specific?

JL: Yeah, I mean you're looking for new things every second of the day. If

you're the only show on, then you say, you go, "Well, we don' need to do a

sketch, we'll just talk to the guest for another tow minutes or three

minutes, you know. So it makes you lazy.

MJ: You also have books that you publish. Tell us about those books.

JL: Oh, those are just books of funny headlines or things that appear

around the country, and then those all go to charity, those aren't, you

know, that's not something you make any money off of. People send us funny

stories or headlines from the newspaper, and we put them in this book, and

we give the money to charity, and then the people buy them back. It seems

silly to send you something, then they buy it back from you. It's a

wonderful scam.

MJ: Can you touch real briefly on your childhood, growing up? Is this what

you wanted to do when you were a kid? Were you dreaming of this?

JL: Yeah, I think so.  I mean, I never thought I would actually do it. My

dad was an insurance salesman, and being a salesman, you know, you always

have to have a funny story or joke, and whenever my dad would win like a

sales award, you know, they'd ask him to give a speech, and he'd have to

write a couple jokes. It was always fun to sit in the audience and see my

dad make people laugh. I thought, "Oh, I'd like to do that, maybe be a

salesman." But I didn't really want to sell anything, I just wanted to do

the joke telling part, you know.

MJ: And how did you get the gig with this show? You substituted for a


JL: Yeah, yeah. I would fill in for Johnny. And one thing sort of led to

another. The rating were pretty good. And, you know, I'd done a lot of

t.v., and been kicking around for a while, so they said, "Ah, we'll give

him a shot."

MJ: And you've also been in some movies.

JL: Well, that's debatable. With Pat Morita, who is Japanese. A huge hit in


MJ: Which one is that?

JL: Well, a movie called "Collision Course." Terrible movie. Terrible

movie. I don't really enjoy making movies, because there's no audience.

When you do a movie, you know, the director will go, you know, "Cut. Ok.

That was hilarious. That was really funny. Let's do it again, just as

funny." Then you do it, and they go, "Ok, thank you . That was really

funny." And you don't hear any laughs. You know, you do a movie, and then a

year later, you have to go to a theater and see if it gets any laughs.

Whereas this, you find out every day.

MJ: You feed off the reaction of the audience?

JL: Yeah, yeah.

MJ: What can we learn about the average American's views from watching your


JL: What can you learn about the average American's views?

MJ: On anything. On issues, political views, anything. How do you represent

those views?

JL: That's interesting. I'm not sure if I see myself as representative.

Well, I don't know, actually. I think the show has sort of that American

sensibility in terms of Americans like you to be somewhat of a wise-guy,

buy not too much of a wise-guy. You know, they like you to sort of pick on

the leaders, and have fun, but obviously not to the point of burning the

White House down, although that may happen, also. I think the guests

reflect people the average American wants to see. I don't know, actually.

That's an interesting question. I mean, the more you do a show like this,

the more you travel, the more you realize people are not that different, to

me. You know, I have a satellite dish at home, and I pick up shows from all

over the world and you realize comedy is comedy and funny is funny. I

watched a show from, I guess it was Korea. And they had a comedy

competition. And although I couldn't understand what they were saying, the

movements were exactly the same. You know. And you realize Oh, I see, the

punchline is coming up. And you know, it was great fun to watch. So body

language is not that different.

MJ: Are there guests that are just...  you know it's just going to be a

tough interview? And guests that are just going to be smooth every time?

JL: Oh sure, sure.

MJ: Who are some...can you name some names for us?

JL: Well, people that are big actors are not necessarily humorous

storytellers. I mean, there's probably no better actor than Robert De Niro.

But I think even he would tell you talk shows are not what he does, so he

doesn't come prepared with a list of,  you know, hilarious anecdotes to

tell you. It's not what they do. You know, this is a totally this is a

unique type of thing-talk show guest, you know. Usually the best guests, 

in terms of reaction, not necessarily ratings, because people don't know

who they are, are what we call character actors. People who play a lot of

different parts in a lot of different movies, and they have to be very

adaptable to whatever the situation is, and they always have a lot of the

funny back-scene, you know, behind the scenes stories, and things like

that, so those people are probably the best. Some of the minor players you

know that work hard to get where they are, so they work on these stories,

so they can get on these shows and have something funny to say.

MJ: Not every country has this kind of show at the end of the day. Why do

you think we have several of this kind, especially your show?

JL: Why? I don't know, most Americans like to have a laugh before they go

to bed. I mean, here in America, you know, about 11:00 at night, which is

when people start to get drowsy, the news comes on, which is usually

depressing, and then we come on with hopefully a funny joke or something

about the news. And light entertainment. I mean, we're not curing cancer or

anything on the show. We don't do those kinds of segments. It's just to

give people a smile or chuckle before they go to bed. And that's really the

basic idea behind the program. Keep it light, and people go, "Oh, maybe the

world's not so bad," you know, boom.

MJ: And are you a critic? Do you go home and watch your own show?

JL: Well, I mean, I don't stare at my own reflection in the pool, like

"Ahhh Handsome." I mean, I'll watch to see if a joke worked, to see what

mistakes I'm making, or see how fat I've gotten, or something.

MJ: How has fame changed your life over the years?

JL: How has it changed my life? It hasn't really changed it. I mean you

don't...when you get stopped by the police, they don't automatically put

the hand on the gun. "Oh, it's Jay, how are you? Nice to see you." You

know, it's that type, which is the nicest part about it. I mean, if you go

somewhere, and you're walking down a dark alley, and  a woman's coming the

other way, normally they'd look at me and go, "Aaa, oh my god!" And now

they go, "Oh, it's Jay Leno." You know, I mean there's a friendliness

that's sort of... You know, when you're on t.v. in America, it's a bit like

being a popular guy in your school. You know, everybody knows who you are

so you can come and go and things go by a little bit easier for you. 

MJ: You can travel, you can go anywhere? I mean...

JL: Yeah, I mean, if you don't... I like people, so to me signing

autographs and shaking hands is not a problem. I like people. I know

celebrities that can't stand it. it drives them nuts. But I don't know why

you're in this business if you don't like it.

MJ: What's your goal with the show in the years ahead?

JL: Goal? There is no goal. You just...  When you do a show every day, my

goal is to do a show tomorrow. And then just try to get through that. You

know, I don't, you know, want to move into modern interpretive dance or

anything. You know, just do what I got to do to get through tomorrow, and

write those jokes, and try to do the best show you can tomorrow, and just,

you sort of do that every day, and then all of sudden you've got a bunch of


MJ: How long do you see continuing this?

JL: Probably until I'm assassinated.

MJ: Assassinated.

JL: Well, whatever. This is America, after all.

MJ: Have you had any... Bill Clinton has played his sax on other programs.

Have you had any politicians on your show like that? 

JL: Oh, we've had a lot of politicians on, not playing sax. A number of the

candidates have been through. Bob Dole, and just a number of senators and

people who are not probably known outside the United States. But, yeah, we

do have occasionally. You know, they try to come on and show how human they

are, and how funny they are, and it usually doesn't work, but...

MJ: Who would be your favorite president in terms of getting joke material?

JL:Well, usually ex-presidents... Oh you mean for getting joke material?

Oh, Bill Clinton is pretty good, because he's young, and he's good

looking,and people associate him with food and women, and all those kinds

of things, you know. Jimmy Carter is a terrific guest, as an ex-president.

You know, he's done it, he can relax, and take it easy, and talk with a bit

more candor, you know.

MJ: But who provides the best material for you? Would a President Bob Dole

give you the best material, or Bill Clinton or________

JL: Well, Clinton's pretty good. Probably the all time greatest was Ronald

Reagan. I mean...

MJ: Why?

JL: Well, because of the age thing, and, you know, being an actor, and some

of the comments he would make. Of course, now he's got Alzheimer's disease,

and it's not, you know, you can't, he's a beloved figure, and you can't

make fun of him, but at the time, he was the best. Ooo, Reagan jokes. Ooo.

Those are the early days... Those are the easy days.

MJ: Are there any jokes that are just off limits? You mentioned

Alzheimer's, the president's disease.

JL: Well, jokes that are off limits are probably... I don't like... I like

jokes which turn the minority on the majority, and by that I mean I don't

like... I mean ethnic jokes can be fine, if you sort of... Let me think.

Like when we were doing Judge Ito. We were doing these Ito dancers. Now

he's Japanese. But we never did jokes about Japanese ancestry, they were

jokes about, it was just... Judge Ito had a beard, and glasses, and a black

robe. So anybody in America that put on a beard, glasses, and a robe could

be an Ito. And we had a lot of fun with that, and never got a complaint.

Then you had Senator Al D'Amato, for example, here in the United States, he

went on and did sort of a racist stereotype Judge Ito, you know, doing a

voice in broken English. And it didn't work, I mean they'd boo, and you'd

get... Whereas we never had a problem with it, because Japanese-Americans

realize we're not making fun of anybody's ancestry, we're making of just,

anybody can be an Ito, if you know what I'm saying. And that's always fun

to me. I don't like jokes which put down someone at the expense of someone

else. Or jokes about religion or things of that nature. Things that people

hold common. You know, the real trick to doing this, is, if you see a fat

man, you make fun of his tie, if you see a bald guy,  you make fun of his

shoe. And after a while, the audience begins to understand where you're

coming from. Unless it's a really mean, bald, fat guy, and then you just

hit him with everything, but..

MJ: We showed your audience outside lining up. How many are in here and

where are they from, are they local people?

JL: They're from all over the United States, and you know this show is on

satellite now, so we get a lot of tourists, get a lot of Germans, a lot of

Scandinavians. You know, they come to Los Angeles, and they see the show in

their country, and they go, "Oh let's go over there, it's free, and so..."

MJ: It's free.

JL: Yeah. It's free.

MJ: Thanks for joining us today.

JL: Hey, thank you. Thank you.


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