I think Jay Leno knew I was black before I told him. My voice might have given it away, but Leno is adept at noticing the nuances of an audience, even if that audience is just one journalist doing a phone interview.
Leno’s humor is honed from decades of standup comedy at diverse locations, including the Playboy Mansion and conservative Oral Roberts University. Jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk would even trick audiences into thinking Leno was a black man by calling him “a young brother who’s gonna tell it like it is.” Leno learned how to win audiences over, even when they weren’t quite sure what was going on.
During our conversation ahead of Leno’s Hollywood Casino performances, I wanted to know how Leno changed his routine to make this year’s combative presidential election funny. He laughed, said he had no choice, and quickly mentioned the importance of voting in reference to Kanye West and Colin Kaepernick who decided to forego the election process.
“I don’t get people who don’t vote. I get not liking either candidate. Here’s your chance to do something. It’s the most egalitarian protest possible.”
Leno is an Independent who cares more about equality than party affiliations. “Rights is something you always got to fight for. All you need is for one generation to stop.” He mentioned the Taliban infiltrating Afghanistan as an example. The Taliban’s oppression led to the collapse of women professionals who were once 50 percent of government workers. “In 20 years, for 20 years, you have two generations of women who can’t read, who can’t leave the house without a male relative, and everybody is like, those types of things can’t happen. Yeah, it can happen. It happened. When you give your rights to somebody else, this is what happens. It’s crazy.”
Leno’s two-decade tenure as a late-night personality gives him an unique view of current events. An almost endless list of newsmakers graced the “Tonight Show” stage, including president-elect Donald Trump. I asked Leno what Trump was like face to face.
“You know something, I think the thing is, he doesn’t appear to have any core beliefs. Everything he believes now, he didn’t believe six years ago,” Leno discussed. “When he used to come on the show, he was a reality TV star. And you kind of chalk it up to false bravado ... bragging about this, oh, OK, you’re on television now. It’s kind of what you do on a reality show.” Despite Leno’s concerns, his inexhaustible optimism remains. “I don’t know. I like to think that [the presidential] office can change you. Maybe it can.”
For Leno, living in a volatile climate is nothing new. “When I was a kid, it was at the height of the Civil Rights movement,” Leno said. “I can remember being a kid in Boston and seeing cops break up interracial couples walking down the street. ‘You go this way, you go that way.’ In that sense, we came a long way, but the classic mistake is asking a white guy, how far did we come in race relations? You don’t ask a white guy,” Leno laughed. “That’s part of the problem.”
My personal experiences as a black woman made me laugh along with the former “Tonight Show” comedian, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of social issues mixed with optimistic comedy. Even in his candor, Leno prefers to be governed by the social responsibility of kindness.
“The cheapest, most effective way to effect change, without costing you a dime to do, is to be kind,” Leno said. He believes that those who are filled with love outnumber those filled with hate. “The funny analogy I make about it is that the same people seem to be in all the porn movies. Most people don’t do it. ‘Oh, she got a blond wig on now. I know her.’ The same people make all these movies. Porn is everywhere. Like 100 people do it all the time. Most people don’t act this way or behave this way, so that’s what makes me sort of less antsy about it.”
Leno avoids fearmongering news to embrace the facts. “Here’s a classic example. Last year, there were six shark attacks worldwide. The year before, there were three, and the news said shark attacks were up 100 percent. People think that when they go on the bus, sharks are going to jump out on them. We just live in a world where you get all this negative information. It’s why you have family, it’s why you have loved ones to protect you from all this stuff.”
It was Leno’s community that helped him endure a laundry list of bizarre experiences that taught him how to adapt.
“I opened up for Muddy Waters one time,” Leno recalled. “A guy took a ketchup bottle and knocked me over the head and knocked me out. I got docked a show’s pay. I should have seen it coming, the [show manager] said. That’s what it is. Welcome to show business, baby!”
Somehow, Leno keeps bouncing back. He lost “The Tonight Show” in 2009 only to gain it again before leaving the show in 2014. He now has a CNBC car enthusiast program called “Jay Leno’s Garage” on top of a dizzying schedule of standup shows.
“The common ground is just kindness. You just treat people nicely. It’s amazing how many doors that opens.”
Jay Leno will be at Hollywood Casino at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Nov. 26. Tickets are $75 to $256. Call 800-795-7001 for more info.