Jay Leno on Life After The Tonight Show, Avoiding Letterman’s Finale and Heading to CNBC

Plus, what's wrong with late night now

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.

Oh, no!

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.