Jay Leno said he hasn’t touched a dime of his Tonight Show earnings.
That’s a lot of dimes.
Leno earned between $20 million and $30 million a year while hosting the show.
Back in his fameless days, when he sold cars by day and did stand up at night, Leno said he resolved always to have two income streams: One to spend and one to save. After he inherited “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson, he continued to perform enough stand-up every year to cover his bills.
“I always wanted to live on the money I made as a comedian,” Leno said in a phone interview. “Television makes you lazy.”
The prudence of this practice may seem perverse to some people, given the wealth the comedian has attained. But Leno said that his parents were young adults during the Great Depression and always impressed on him the need to hoard his dimes.
Leno will return to Fort Wayne on August 4 to perform one of those dime-earning gigs at the Foellinger Theatre.
Leno is frugal in almost every respect. He does have one materialistic weakness, however, and it’s no secret: cars.
Leno hosts a CNBC show called “Jay Leno’s Garage,” in which the comedian and celebrity guests share their love of vehicles. Leno owns more than 200 cars. He doesn’t know the exact number.
These days, Leno said a car’s story is much more likely to entice him to buy it than its Kelley Blue Book value.
“A good example of that: one day, I got a call from an old man,” Leno said. “He said, ‘I’m too old. I can’t drive anymore. I’ve got a ’67 Chrysler Imperial, two-door coupe with dual air conditioners front and back. I am the original owner and I want to sell it.’
“I said, ‘Where do you live?’ and he said, ‘Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills.’ I thought, ‘Well, that makes it interesting.’”
Leno said the man’s house was “like a William Holden movie.” The man was waiting for Leno at the end of a long driveway wearing an ascot and a smoking jacket.
As it turned out, the man was a retired producer of films created expressly for African-American audiences in the 1930s and ’40s. His wife was a former actress who refused to come out of the couple’s bedroom because she wanted Leno to think of her as the young woman in old photos displayed throughout the house.
The car was in mint condition, Leno said.
“Of course, I bought the car,” he said. “I still have it and I drive it. With the dual air conditioners, you are literally freezing in a matter of minutes.”
With his stand-up shows, his car series, his car-related writings, and his car-related appearances, Leno stays pretty busy. But he said he is home more nights than not.
“I don’t really enjoy traveling,” he said. “Anything this side of the Mississippi, I go home. After I perform in Fort Wayne, I’ll go to Indianapolis and go home. That’s how you stay married.”
Leno’s longtime wife is Mavis, who told the Washington Post in 2014 about deciding at a young age while watching The Honeymooners that she didn’t want to get married or have kids.
“I would see a young woman who was very attractive, and a thousand times smarter, and she’s living in this little tenement hovel with her husband, Ralph, and then this Ed Norton, who has an even hotter wife,” she said. “These men spend all their time talking about what a drag the wives are and asking how can they get away from them. It’s perfectly obvious the women are the ones trapped.”
The reason that Mavis Leno changed her mind about marriage is that “he is probably the single kindest human being I ever met,” she said.
That is not a characterization of Leno that is likely shared by the comedian’s high-profile detractors: people who are still upset at him for the circumstances surrounding David Letterman’s and Conan O’Brien’s departures from NBC.
On the phone, Leno comes across as a down-to-earth, forthright, and humble guy. It seems likely that his moustache-twisting role in these television imbroglios has been misunderstood and/or overblown.
Leno just wants to tell jokes. He just wants to give 110 percent to whomever is buying a ticket and or signing a check. He just wants to keep working.
“I really like it,” he said. “I really enjoy it. At this point, it’s fun because people kind of know you and they’re coming to see you.
“This is how comedians talk when you’re unknown,” Leno said. “‘It took me ten minutes, but I finally got ’em,’ or ‘I never got ’em,’ or ‘I got ’em after three minutes.’ When you’re well known, you got ’em.”
Leno said he doesn’t think about what legacy he will leave behind.
“That’s one of the funniest things to me,” he said.
Leno said he was in Vegas at the Hilton a few years back and he saw workers carrying Elvis Presley memorabilia through the hotel.
“I said, ‘Oh, are you guys putting up an Elvis exhibit?’ And they said, ‘No. We’re taking it down. Kids don’t know who he is.’
“Whatever you think your legacy is, if they’re not remembering Elvis…,” Leno said. “I am a huge believer in low self-esteem. If you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’ll do fine.
“I am extremely happy with everything that’s happened,” he said. “The idea that, ‘Oh, I must live on somehow. A statue must be erected.’ Nobody cares.”
Asked what would convince him to retire from touring, Leno responded, “A massive stroke?”