It’s been almost four years since Jay Leno signed off of NBC’s The Tonight Show, and to hear the former late-night staple tell it, he doesn’t miss having that platform.
Currently the host of CNBC docuseries Jay Leno’s Garage, the car enthusiast is still an avid consumer of late-night fare, watching his Tonight Show successor Jimmy Fallon and NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers as well as ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live and CBS’ The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, among others.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Leno at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, where he appeared Tuesday night to support Garage, to get his thoughts on how late-night hosts are covering President Donald Trump, if he misses having a platform and if, like David Letterman, he’d want to return to the desk for a streaming show.
What do you think of how late-night has evolved to cover the Trump administration?
Late-night has always been pretty topical. The only trouble is now everyone has the same topic. (Laughs.) It’s all depressing Trump stuff. And they all do a great job. Seth Meyers is a great writer; Jimmy Kimmel does a good job; Jimmy Fallon does a great job. I like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah [on Comedy Central] and Samantha Bee [on TBS]. The trouble is that there’s such negativity now. When I did the show, Bush was dumb and Clinton was horny and it was human problems. Now it’s all anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-Salvadoran; it’s such a negative thing. God bless all the late-night hosts, they make it funny, but ultimately, it’s depressing. You don’t really watch late-night TV to get away from reality anymore; now it’s more in your face. You laugh but then you go to bed going, “Oh man, the world is really pretty rough.” And it’s not, it’s one man that causes all these problems!
But then there’s an upside. My wife was so depressed when Trump was elected but I said, “This will be the greatest thing that ever happens to the women’s movement.” Because even men who are apathetic are going, “Whoa, wait a minute.” Harvey Weinstein was a catalyst, but Trump really started [the groundswell]. Seven hundred and fifty thousand women showed up for that march on three days’ notice. That was unprecedented.
I think it’s ultimately a good thing; sometimes you have to hit people in the head with a two-by-four to make them aware. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own problems right now — “I’m into guns” or “I’m into this” — that they don’t care about anybody else’s. But now, even the worst guys in the world, guys who cheated every day, are saying, “Whoa, this is bad!” Ultimately, something good will come out of it. I always used to meet young women who would say, “I’m not a feminist or anything but I want to get the same money as a guy.” I’d say, “What do you think it means to be a feminist?” Now they’re beginning to understand. I like to see a silver lining and I think that’s one of the good things that will happen. People are so incensed by Trump and what he does. But the country is actually OK — unemployment is down, people are working — so ultimately some good will come out of it.
Who are you watching? Who do you think is doing their best work right now?
I’m a joke guy; I don’t really watch the celebrity interviews because I’ve interviewed all those people already. I watch Seth Meyers, Fallon, Kimmel. I do try to watch them all. I like to hear their jokes. That’s the hardest thing to do — write a joke — and it’s really hard when you have to write basically the same joke every night. I don’t mean that in an insulting way. And they do it, they’re really creative and really funny. It’s not the lazy kind of version of a joke you’ve heard before. People are really writing good stuff and it’s impressive.
Do you wish you had a platform right now to have your shot at Trump?
No, I don’t. I had my platform and I enjoyed it for 22 years. But at some point, it turned into a young person’s game. At my age, I can’t pretend to know all of Jay-Z’s music. When you’re 40, you talk to the 26-year-old supermodels and it’s sexy; when you’re 67, you’re the creepy old guy. At some point, you need to step back and say, “I did it.” I was lucky enough to live in a time when we did very well and the show was No. 1 and then say thank you and step back. That’s why I came back with something totally different [CNBC’s Jay Leno’s Garage] — it’s nothing like what I did. This is a hobby and it’s fun. It’s what I like to do. I’m not a sports guy, so whenever I’d have athletes on the show, I’d have to fake it. “You were great in that third inning” [whispers to someone, “What did they do?”].
David Letterman is coming to Netflix with My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, a six-episode series that features him interviewing one guest for an hour, kicking off with former President Barack Obama on Friday. Would you want to do an in-depth interview series for a streaming outlet?
Not really. I like what I’m doing. To me, I like talking to regular people and seeing what I can draw out of them. I’m sure Dave will be excellent, he always does a good show. He’s such a quirky guy, I’m sure it will be terrific. But it’s too close to what I used to do. And lightning doesn’t usually strike twice. For some people it can; Dave is talented and I’m sure it’ll do fine.
And it’s Netflix, so nobody will really know how many people watched — or didn’t watch.
I don’t get that. It’s like you have these teams but we’re not going to keep score, we’re just going to play. What am I doing here? I don’t get it, why would I want to play baseball and not win the game? It doesn’t make any sense. I like getting the ratings the next day, you get yelled at if the demo wasn’t here; I like that feel of it. It makes it fun.
If you could interview anyone right now, who would you want to talk to?
I don’t know. You never know. That’s the fascinating thing, when you talk to men who walked on the moon and ask them, “What’s it like to walk on the moon?” and they respond with, “Cool!” And then you meet an astronaut like Story Musgrave, who is also like a philosopher who can make telling those stories so exciting and tell you things that you didn’t even think of. You never know. I like to be surprised; I like when you meet regular people who have extraordinary things to say or have led extraordinary lives. The civilians were always my favorite guests on The Tonight Show, because most showbiz people have their act. And that’s fine. And the same with politicians. I watched Stephen Miller get interviewed by Jake Tapper the other day and he just kept repeating himself — he said the exact same two paragraphs that he said at the very beginning and just kept repeating himself! It’s all talking points!