Jay Leno now has more time for jokes

Jay Leno on being a clean comic: “Instead of using the word ‘----,’ you call somebody a syphilitic druid... and it’s a funny word play. It sounds more clever. It’s just more of a writing exercise.”
Jay Leno on being a clean comic: “Instead of using the word ‘----,’ you call somebody a syphilitic druid... and it’s a funny word play. It sounds more clever. It’s just more of a writing exercise.” Courtesy of Jay Leno

If you’ve been dying to see Jay Leno return to television since he signed off from “The Tonight Show” in 2014, you’re in luck: He is returning with a new weekly CNBC series, titled “Jay Leno’s Garage,” later this year.

And if you’ve been dying to see Leno return to his stand-up comedy roots, which date back more than 40 years, consider your wish granted: He’ll tell jokes at Belk Theater Thursday night for about 90 minutes, in a show that marks his first appearance on a Charlotte stage this century.

It was apparently pretty easy to get him to come back.

“I’m a huge believer in low self-esteem,” said Leno, who turned 65 last month. “So I’m one of those people, if they ask you to go, what are you doing that’s more important than that?”

In an interview with the Observer, the strong-jawed, salt-and-pepper-haired comedian reminisced about “The Tonight Show,” reflected on David Letterman’s retirement and weighed in on the state of both late-night television and comedy in general.

Q. What do you miss the most about hosting “The Tonight Show”?

A. My favorite part was the monologue. But you quickly realize that “Tonight Show” monologue jokes don’t necessarily work as live-theater jokes, because “The Tonight Show” is like a newspaper: You open with the big story of the day, and you work your way through. ... One-liners on “The Tonight Show” really have a shelf life of just a couple of days, because the story moves on, or the story changes. (With live theater) you’re looking for those jokes that have a shelf life where you can do them for awhile.

Q. So then, what’s that process like, of figuring out what jokes will work for stand-up?

A. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right word. The fun part about doing “The Tonight Show” was, something happens on Monday afternoon, I can do a joke about it Monday night. But then Tuesday comes and I go, “I think this joke would’ve worked better if I said this or I said that.”

When you do “The Tonight Show,” you do different jokes in the same place every night. When you go on the road, you tend to do the same jokes in a different place every night. But you can hone it. You can realize, “I don’t need that middle sentence where I describe the thing.” It’s really an economy of words. Because the old rule is: The longer it takes to tell a joke, boy, the funnier it better be.

Comedy’s not like music. You can’t sit in your basement and produce an album and then come out and show it to people. You’ve gotta do it in front of audiences and find out if they really think it’s funny or not.

Q. What are your thoughts on Letterman retiring?

A. He had a good run. Dave was excellent at what he did. We started out together. When I first met Dave, he was an excellent wordsmith, but not necessarily a great standup performer. Whereas I think I had a lot more going for me in the performance part, I just needed to tighten up the jokes a little bit. So I think Letterman took from me the ability to perform, and I took from Dave the ability to form words.

Q. What do you think of the current state of late-night television?

A. Oh, it’s fun. Jimmy Fallon is doing a great job. Jimmy is probably closer to Johnny in style than anybody else that has come along, because Johnny was boyish and playful and could play instruments. ... But I’d like to see a little more diversity. It would be fun to have female late-night host – Amy Schumer, or somebody like that. Or an African American. I like Larry Wilmore (host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”). He’s a good joke writer.

Q. And what about the current state of comedy in general?

A. I don’t care for the meanness part of it. I see a lot of comedy now, if it’s not mean, it’s not considered edgy. Even White House Correspondents’ dinners. If you’re not eviscerating the president, “Oh, you bombed.” I mean, you calling the president an a------, I don’t quite get that. But it’s a different time. Or maybe I’m just getting old.

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes


Jay Leno

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. next Thursday.

WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $20-$194.50.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.