Jay Leno had his pick of TV offers after he stepped down as host of The Tonight Show in February 2014. But instead of jumping right back on television, Leno stepped away from the spotlight to focus on stand-up. Twenty months later, Leno's returning to TV, not with a talk show but with Jay Leno's Garage, a weekly CNBC series focused on cars and motorcycles. Premiering Wednesday at 10 p.m., the show is an offshoot of the YouTube series of the same name, which Leno launched in 2006.
Leno sat down with Adweek to talk about CNBC's appeal, life after The Tonight Show, the biggest problem with late night and why he didn't show up for David Letterman's Late Show finale in May.
Adweek: Did you approach CNBC about bringing Jay Leno's Garage to television, or did they come to you?
Jay Leno: I'm not quite sure. I like NBC—that's my home. I've always been there. People always go, "Why don't you jump ship?" Because I know them, and I like them. Whether you didn't get along with a particular executive, that's one person. The crews, the lighting guys, the makeup people … that's always been the same, and I like having a home to go to. Just because you fight with your family doesn't mean you leave. And I like CNBC because I like the demo—it's smart. I watch these car shows where people throw tools at each other, and they don't really learn anything. Whereas CNBC is upscale: I watch the ads and it's all Mercedes-Benz and upscale stuff like that. And it's a chance to be not necessarily a big fish in a small pond, but it just looks like a nice place to be.
When you left The Tonight Show, I was certain you'd be back on TV within six months.
So you had always intended to stay away this long?
Lightning doesn't strike twice. I certainly got plenty of offers to do things, but what do you do? You'd do a truncated version. The nice thing about The Tonight Show was the set, the band, all the equipment has been amortized over 22 years. So we could do the show reasonably profitably. If you buy all that stuff brand-new and start again—oh my God! Plus, that model is sort of gone. In those days, you had to wait until 11:30 to hear what we had to say. Now, it's released ahead of time. That's where Jimmy [Fallon]'s smart. He puts out viral videos and all that kind of stuff. So no, I didn't want to do the same thing.
When you were doing The Tonight Show, you kept tabs on what everyone else was doing in late night. Do you still do that, or have you stepped back?
I've stepped back. I watch it for enjoyment now. I watch Jimmy [Fallon]; I watch Seth [Meyers]. I don't really watch a lot of the others. Those are my two favorites. I like those guys.
What do you miss most and least from your time on The Tonight Show?
Doing the monologue every day was great fun. That was 80 percent of my day—writing the jokes. I don't miss a lot of publicists. My favorite one we had was some ice-skater who had won some gold medals, and then 10 years later, she's in Playboy. And the publicist pitched it, all right, second guest. She comes and the publicist pulled me aside: "We're not discussing the Playboy issue." I've never said this before, but I said, "Why don't you take your client and go home. She's only here because she took her clothes off in a magazine after winning gold." I mean, I'm not going to insult her. I'm not going to make her feel cheap. But if you don't want to discuss it, I can get a comic here in six minutes.
One of the biggest questions counting down to David Letterman's farewell was whether you were going to show up at the end. What was behind your decision to stay away?
Well, I asked Dave to do a 10-second tape for us [when I left]. Anything, just, "Leno who?" They said no, they didn't want to do it. Well, why am I going to run all the way to New York? I mean, quid pro quo. I just said, "No, that's kind of silly."
Since leaving The Tonight Show, are you doing more stand-up dates?
Yeah. I did 210 dates this year. I was on the road from March all the way through June, nonstop. Went to Israel, London—that was fun.
So, do you feel like this CNBC show is the perfect amount of TV presence for you, or would you like to do more?
I've always been happy at whatever level I'm at. When I was working strip joints when I was 19 years old, I'd go to work, there would be naked girls in my job and I'd make $25 a night. All my friends are at Denny's covered in peanut oil, and I thought it was the greatest job in the world. So when people go, "OK, but is that a step down?" No, I play the room. I'd rather have a 500-seat room that's full than a 1,200 seat room with 500 people in it. It really doesn't matter. I enjoy my Web show. We do Jay Leno's Garage on the Web—just did me talking to the camera—and it became the third biggest automotive show on YouTube. You know, I'm a huge believer in low self-esteem. So look, you guys like it? Can you make money with this? OK. Oh, you can't? OK—whatever you want. I don't try to oversell anything. I like to make money for the people I work for. That's how I was able to stay on The Tonight Show all those years. When we had those cutbacks [in 2012], I said, "Well, cut my salary in half. I can't spend the money anyway." So that's what we did, and we had a very happy crew. And everybody worked hard because almost nobody lost their job. It's just common sense. I mean, you can't eat a whole pie. You can eat as much pie as you can, and then you give the rest away or do whatever you want with it.
I enjoy this little world, doing the car thing. It's a lot of fun, and luckily with the Tonight Show, I was able to make some celebrity connections. So, I could call up Keanu Reeves and say, "Hey, do you want to do something on it?" We're just talking cars and whatever, and people seem to like that.
Can you believe how much the late-night landscape has changed since you left? Every broadcast host is different except for Jimmy Kimmel.
No, it's exactly the same. It's all white guys. What's changed? Nothing's changed. You just replace one white guy with another. I'm waiting for the breakthrough African-American or female host. But it's all white guys, and most of them are named Jimmy. Whenever we do a show, I always try to have good diversity—not hit people over the head with it. But in the car show, we talk to women stunt drivers, women drag racers, because you don't want it to be a bunch of old white guys. You want to see the African-American car culture, the Latino car culture. So you try to be very inclusive—you try to bring everybody in the tent. That's something we always tried to do on The Tonight Show, and that's what we try to do here.