Jay Leno’s still on the go, still elbows deep in comedy and cars.
Five years after walking away as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” he’s still doing 210 comedy shows a year, including a sold-out appearance Friday night at the Casino Ballroom in Hampton, New Hampshire, followed by a private fundraiser this weekend in Shrewsbury. Then, oh yeah, he flies to Belgium, for a one-nighter.
“A one-night stand in Belgium,” he quipped in a phone interview.
Two weeks ago, he did a show in Shanghai, China. He’s done lots of shows over there.
People ask him all the time what it’s like in China. He says he wouldn’t know. He enters the venue out back by the kitchen, says “hi” to the busboy, hits the stage, performs the show and flies out.
After the recent Shanghai gig, he was back to his home base in Los Angeles within 24 hours and filming for “Jay Leno’s Garage,” his show on classic cars.
He actually has two of those shows — one, on YouTube, about the mechanics of classic car restoration and another, on CNBC, on which he hosts celebrities.
What would be a dizzying and disorienting schedule and routine for most is second nature for Leno, an Andover High graduate, Class of 1968.
“It’s not disorienting at all,” he said in the phone interview, appropriately from a car. “I have been on the road for 50 years.”
At this moment, he was on his way to legendary comedian Tim Conway’s funeral. Conway, who cracked up audiences — and fellow comedians — playing the lovable fool, died May 12. He was a staple of 1960s and ’70s television, a mainstay in “McHale’s Navy” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Leno started making his name decades later. He’s become known for his high-voiced quips, quizzical eyes and expressions, and patented comedic rhythm — skills honed in thousands of stand-up dates and 22 years of hosting “The Tonight Show.”
Even when he was hosting “The Tonight Show,” from 1992 to 2014, he was heading out for 150 comedy dates a year.
He and his wife, Mavis, make their home in California, but Leno lives everywhere. He has owned a house in Andover for 35 years. A friend from high school lives there now, and when Leno returns for shows in New England, he stays at the house and sees old friends, he said. He also owns a house in Rhode Island.
Leno’s stand-up material includes a bit of everything — stuff about growing up in New England, the differences between California and the Northeast, observations about life in the USA.
Lately, he’s been playing the angry guy on the street, barging in on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” monologue with an angry guy rant.
He’s been ranting comedic ever since he was a kid.
When he was in high school, he wasn’t typically focused on classwork. His English teacher, Sandra Hawkes, told him that she saw him in the halls joking with classmates all the time. Maybe he could write some humorous pieces and read them to the class, she told him.
He did, and really got into it, polishing his material and readying it for class. He loved it. He doesn’t recall any of the specific sketches, but imagines some likely were about school life.
Hawkes encouraged the then-15-year-old Leno to think about a future writing comedy.
She died young, of breast cancer. Her husband was a shop teacher. Leno still visits him sometimes.
Leno said his interests in high school were like those of a lot of his classmates — girls and cars.
As a young teenager, he restored, then drove, a ’34 pickup truck. He worked at the McDonald’s on Main Street in Andover back when it had golden arches. The running slogan referenced feeding a family of four for $1. The burgers cost 15 cents.
There were some high school kids who drank beer in those days, but there wasn’t a lot of that or the wild times that people often associate with the 1960s, Leno said.
“We weren’t planning to blow up the Bank of America,” he said.
Andover was a good place to grow up, Leno recalled. The schools had caring teachers who would see their students around town. “Hey, I saw you burning rubber in the McDonald’s parking lot,” they would sometimes tell Leno.
It was a time when teachers could afford to live in Andover, he said.
There was more continuity to life. His history teacher had the same homeroom classroom for 30 years.
Behind the wheel
The Lenos lived in the Ballardvale section of Andover in a regular 1950s-era house. They had moved to Andover in 1959 from New Rochelle, New York — Angelo and Catherine Leno and sons Patrick and Jay arriving in a ’57 Plymouth.
The family had big American-made cars. Everyone did, Leno said.
On the day Leno was born in 1950, Angelo Leno drove his swaddled comedian-to-be home from the hospital in a ’49 Plymouth.
After the Plymouths, the next two cars the family owned were Fords. Leno even remembers the name of the Andover salesman at Shawsheen Motors — Tom Lawrence — from whom his dad bought his ’64 Ford Galaxie and then his ’66 Galaxie.
His father relished dickering, and Jay came along to the dealership for the excitement, he has said in other interviews. At least once, he joined the gamesmanship, feigning dislike for the car whose sale he said was being negotiated as gravely as an international crisis.
The next car Angelo Leno bought was a Buick Electra. Later, after Leno started making money, he bought his father a Cadillac and a Lincoln Continental.
His mom and dad and brother have died.
In 2001, Leno sold the family’s blue-shuttered Cape Cod-style home, and it was razed for development.
The comedy and cars continue.
He doesn’t call his comedy dates “tours.” That gives the sense of a big production, crews unloading amplifiers and such, which isn’t the case.
“I just get up and go,” he said.