Every weeknight starting at 11:35, Jay Leno entertains night owls on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, telling jokes about current events and interviewing celebrity guests. The legendary comic, who has hosted the late-night talk show for nearly 20 years, has also written three books—two of them children’s—and still performs stand-up at venues nationwide. He will be the featured entertainer at this year’s Lady in Red Gala, held December 1 at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. The event benefits the LIFE foundation, which supports the neediest members of society.
PBI.com: Why was it important to you to come to the Lady in Red Gala this year?
JL: It raises money for a good cause, and any charity that’s a good cause is fun to do if you have the time. People will thank you for coming, but it’s not hard work. I’m a comedian; I like to tell jokes. People come and they want to have a good time. Any excuse to help a good cause is fine. People like to dress up. They like to go to parties. If it benefits a good cause and the money goes to a special place, all the better.
Can you give us a little tease for what you might talk about?
I’m not quite sure what I’ll talk about yet, but pretty much current events and things of that nature. It’s a nice group of folks. I actually play down in that part of the country quite a bit. In fact, that’s how I got this job. I met Lois [Pope] when I was doing another event, and she came over and said, “Oh, will you do our event?” And I said, “If I’m free.” I was free, and I said, “Let’s do it.”
What are some causes that are important to you?
Every cause is important. It’s hard to say that the leukemia [charity] is more important than breast cancer. The idea is if you’re not doing one event but you can do another, you do that one.
I don’t really say one is any more important than the other, because they’re not, really. The correct answer is probably the fact that in this economic climate, there’s not a lot of money going around. So consequently, you’ve got to work a little bit harder and make the events a little bit more interesting and put a little bit more out there to get people to come and want to donate their time and effort. …
They’re fun to do. It’s not like it’s any great sacrifices on my part or a lot of hard work. The women are attractive, the men are handsome, the people are wealthy, they’re giving money for a good cause—there’s really no downside to it.
Do you come to Palm Beach often?
No, not really. I tend to go everywhere for a few hours [laughs]. You land at 5:30 [p.m.], you go out at 8 or 9 o’clock and get back on the plane at 10 and I’m home at 4 in the morning. But that’s everywhere. I have to be [in Los Angeles] five days a week, so consequently, if you go somewhere, it’s only for a matter of hours. I went to China for the day two weeks ago [laughs]. I was only there seven hours.
What are you looking forward to about coming to Palm Beach?
I’m looking forward to seeing my relatives. My uncle Tony lives down there. When you’re Italian and you’re over the age of 70, you have to move to Florida. That’s the law. That’s the great fun for me—I get to see some of my relatives. They all have a good time down there.
Will any of your relatives be at the gala?
No [laughs]. They don’t have that kind of dough. I don’t think so. Totally different crowd. Unless they’re selling meatballs or handing out pizza slices or something like that—no, probably not.
Who are some comedians you admire today?
Jerry Seinfeld’s one of my closest friends. Kathleen Madigan is really funny. There are a lot of really good comics out there now. It’s just there are so many outlets now. It’s not like the old days where you’d appear on TV once and everybody in America sees you.
The performers [today] need to do literally hundreds of performances before people even have an inkling of who you are, because somebody’s watching the Animal Planet, somebody else is watching something else, you’re watching the three networks. When I was a kid, if you were on [The] Ed Sullivan [Show], you were famous the next day. That was it. But those days are gone.
What stands out to you as a favorite moment of your career?
Doing the White House Correspondents' Dinner the first time, with President [Ronald] Reagan, that was kind of cool. I remember that I was a little nervous, and the general guy comes over and goes, “Hey, are you the comedian?” And I go, “Yeah.” [He said,] “Hey listen, this is the president of the United States. Do you understand? And you don’t do any jokes about him. This is the commander in chief.” He’d given me this big lecture, and he leaves.
And then I see [Secretary of State] George Shultz. And George goes, “Jay, come here.” He goes, “Look, nail Ronnie. Let him have it. Give him all you got. Go after him.” And I go, “Well, you know, this general—” [Shultz interrupted,] “No, screw him.” So I was like, “Aahh! What do I do?” So that was kind of scary.
So what did you do?
I remember the opening joke I did: “I want to congratulate First Lady Nancy Reagan on winning the Humanitarian of the Year Award. I’m glad she beat out that conniving little [expletive] Mother Teresa.” And Reagan really laughed hard. He thought that was funny. He got the joke.
You’ve got a big passion for classic cars. Where does that stem from?
I used to work at car dealerships when I was a kid. When you work with your hands for a living, you tend to appreciate how easy it is to make money in show business. People in show business have got to be jaded in terms of how much money you get paid for the amount of effort involved at a real job.
Do you collect anything else?
No, not really. That’s about it—just cars and motorcycles.
Do you have any hidden talents?
No. I barely have any visible talents.
Do you have any holiday traditions?
I still have all my Christmas trees. When I was a kid, we lived up in Andover, Massachusetts, which was kind of rural at the time, and we had a 300-foot driveway. Every year, my dad and I would go out in the woods, and we would dig up a tree and we’d bring it in the house. When we were through with the tree, we’d bury it in the driveway. So when I go back to Andover, I can see every Christmas tree I had from about age 7 to about age 21, all in a row—the tallest ones and the oldest ones. ... The house is gone, my parents are gone, but the Christmas trees are still there. That’s kind of cool.