If you are a runner, you can’t just do marathons. As a comic, if you are trying to carry two hours of material in your head all the time, and it’s constantly changing, you have to get out and perform it. Musicians can sit in a room and compose, but with comedy, what seems hilarious in your head when you are alone at three a.m. isn’t necessarily that funny the next day. Standing onstage isn’t the most natural place to be, and it can seem stranger if you don’t do it very often. But if you get out in front of an audience every day or two to three times a week, then standing in front of 1,500 or 2,000 people becomes second nature.
You’re a true road warrior; what’s all that travel like?
Going out on the road gives you an idea of what works where. Jokes that are funny in L.A. and New York might be thought too smart-alecky in other parts of the country.
Generally, when I’m flying, the people I meet are terrific all over the country. If they recognize me, I acknowledge them or sign an autograph. And if they don’t, I just keep reading my magazine. But one time on a flight, I overheard a guy say, “That’s Jay Leno — he’s really annoyed that people aren’t recognizing him.” Now, what do I do? Do I turn around and admit that I was eavesdropping, or do I just ignore him and let him think I’m an attention-starved celebrity? A no-win situation, really.
I’ve been to every major city in the United States, including those in Alaska and Hawaii, at least once. But you don’t really get to see the city. You land at night, and you enter the comedy club through the kitchen and wave to the busboy. Then, they shine a light in your eyes, and you tell a few jokes; they give you a check, and you are back on the plane.
I like Chicago, and oddly enough, I like Detroit. I like those cities that have history and that haven’t been completely revitalized — where there are old antiques stores and bookstores that date back to the 1920s. In New York, for example, real estate is so valuable that nothing is that old anymore. Everything gets torn down, and something new is built in its place. The cities I like best haven’t been completely gentrified.
You’ve been married since 1980. By Hollywood standards, you’re a marital anomaly. How do you do it?
First of all, you have to marry someone normal. I also think you have to marry your conscience. To me, a successful marriage is based on the premise that you need to be with someone who can tell you that you are being prideful or arrogant or stupid. For example, I never name-drop at work, but sometimes — and I don’t know why — when I’m back home with my buddies from high school, I’ll hear myself say, “I was talking with Brad Pitt about such and such …” And afterward, my wife, Mavis, will just look at me and shake her head and say, “What was that all about?” You need to be married to someone who will check you on things like that.
As a celeb, have you ever pulled a “Hey, do you know who I am?” to get your way?
The stupid thing about being in show business is that after you become successful, people who would normally tell you to shut up begin to cater to your eccentricities. I hope that anyone on my staff can tell me anything. I like to rule by consensus, so to speak. It makes people feel valued and involved. I think for that reason, it’s not good to have a lot of buffers. I don’t have an agent or a manager. Most celebrities can move through a room without a problem. It’s when they have a lot of handlers that it becomes obnoxious. Show business is ultimately an embarrassing profession to be in, so you try to walk a fine line of not being overbearing or obnoxious but still enjoying the limelight. It’s a genetic fl aw that makes anyone go into show business in the first place — it’s not a plus.
When I go home to see my relatives, they treat me like I’m special, and that’s okay because they are my family. I get the big meatball or the end of the bread. They make a fuss, and it’s sweet: “No, no, that’s for Jay. The big meatball is for Jay.”
It’s completely possible to be famous and lead a normal life. It’s not really that hard. All success and fame do is just make you a more exaggerated version of who you already are.