Jay Leno knows his audience.
While people may wonder about how he’s faring after being burned in a gas fire in 2022 and suffering broken bones in a motorcycle accident in January, he knows New Englanders don’t want to hear him complain.
“Oh I’m fine. Please,” the part-time Newport resident and former host of “The Tonight Show” told the Globe in a recent phone interview. “When you’re rich, people don’t want to hear about your problems. Especially in New England,” he says.
And he knows New Englanders. The famed stand-up comedian and former host of “The Tonight Show” has blue-collar New England roots: He was born in 1950 to a Scottish immigrant mother and Italian-American father, raised in Andover, Mass., and cut his teeth as a comedian in clubs in Boston.
Leno will be performing at a fundraiser for the Rhode Island Italian-American Hall of Fame on Sept. 27 at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Tickets start at $45, and Leno will be inducted into the organization’s hall of fame during the event. All proceeds will go to college scholarships for Rhode Island kids.
“The fun thing about this is 100 percent of the money goes to the scholarship,” he said. “I don’t get paid to do this show. I don’t see a dime. That’s what makes it fun.”
We talked with Leno about how he got his start, his “ridiculous” house in Rhode Island, and the dangers of grabbing a quick bite to eat in Newport.
You’ve lived in Newport since 2017?
Well, I still live in California. I have a house there and I still have a house in Andover, Massachusetts.
What made you buy a place in Rhode Island?
Well, the house is so ridiculous. My wife and I were driving past. My wife said, “Look at that house!” Just as we drove by, the gate opened and the gardener came out. I said, “The gate opened, honey, it’s a sign.” She says “Don’t go in!” So I go in. The caretaker comes out. I said, “Is this house for sale?” He said, “It is. It’s not listed, but it is for sale.” I say, “Can you get the owner on the phone?” I call the owner and I said: “How much just to walk away? All the furniture, ketchup in the refrigerator, salt and pepper.” He gave me a price. We dabbled a little bit. And I bought it.
Do you spend a lot of time in Rhode Island?
Not a whole lot. Once in a winter, in the summer, and then I go to this big car show the last week of September. It’s very New England-y.
People notice when you go out. You were at Wally’s Weiners and they put it on Instagram.
Oh, I did go to Wally’s Wieners. A fine hot dog! This is the funny part about it. Like, I would always go to this one pizza place. So, someone said to me, “Hey, you gotta try Nikolas Pizza.” OK. So, I’m at Nikolas Pizza, and this guy goes, “Jay! Jay, Hi. It’s me. From [the other pizza spot.] What are you doing here?” I said to him — this is how you get in trouble — I said, “Actually, somebody gave me a coupon. So I thought I’d try it.” He goes “Coupon?! We all agreed not to use coupons! He’s using coupons?!” Now he’s all mad. Now I’m trapped in this lie.
You’ve had kind of a rough few months. How are you feeling now? You said you had a new ear, a new face after the gas explosion?
Ohhhh, fine. You know, please. People at ordinary jobs get injured on the job every day, and it’s “Get back to work ya lazy bastard.” You know something? They did it in eight days. I only missed two days of work. It was unbelievable. I just missed two shows.
And President Biden called you in the hospital?
Yeah, that was funny. He’s a nice guy. I’ve known him for a long time. I had him on The Tonight Show back when he ran for president in ‘88. I like him.
So I’m sitting there, the phone rings. I go, “Hello?” “Jay! It’s Joe. Joe Biden!” I go, “Joe Biden, president of the United States?” He goes, “Yeah!” I go, “Thank you, sir!”
[laughs] I wish my mother was still here. “Oh, Jamie, getting a call from the president. Be more respectful!”
Until the day she died, my mother really never understood what I did. I heard her once talking to her sister, Nettie. Nettie goes, “What’s Jay doing now?” She goes, “Well he has a little skit that he puts on from town to town.” I go, “Ma, I don’t go to the town square and dance.”
Was your dad funny?
When I got successful, I bought my dad a Cadillac. And not just any Cadillac, the Italian Cadillac — white with the red velour upholstery. It looked like Elvis’s coffin.
My mother was so embarrassed to ride in this car. They’d pull up to a stoplight, my mother would tell people: “We’re not really Cadillac people — our son got us this.” My dad would say “We’re driving a goddamn Cadillac! Of course we’re Cadillac people!” Then they’d start fighting and people would get scared and drive away.
You went to Emerson College. Was your goal always comedy?
I always wanted to be a comedian. But comedy was not something they taught in those days. It was mostly dramatic stuff. And there really was no place to go. There were no comedy clubs. It’s not like now.
I got a break at a place called Lennie’s on the Turnpike. They had me open for Buddy Rich and Miles Davis — it was great because jazz audiences are there to listen. It’s not like playing for kids waiting for rock-and-roll. And Sandy’s out in Beverly. And there were a few Hootenanny clubs, mostly, you know, “Stop your war machine, man!”-guys with guitars. And at strip clubs in the Combat Zone (in Boston). It would just be people yelling, “Get off the stage!”
I remember playing the Beachcomber in Revere. The owner said to me, “Don’t wear nice clothes.” I didn’t know why he told me that. So I’m on stage. And I hear people laughing. But not at the joke. I realized someone had flicked a cigarette butt on my shoulder and my jacket was on fire. I’m going [blowing out noises] “Aaugghhh!” People were laughing.
And then how did you get from there to “The Tonight Show”?
So you know, it’s funny because you say that, because whenever I would always read show business biographies, it was like, “I was a dishwasher, and Chapter Two, in my first special…” Well, wait, wait! But you know, I mean, that’s kind of the way it works. Your odds of being seen by somebody in show business in Boston were 1 in 1000. In Los Angeles, it’s 1 in 10. There’s always somebody in the audience who’s connected.
With all the talk shows and TV shows, they were always looking for someone who could do 5 minutes of comedy, right? (David) Letterman and I were pretty much contemporaries, so that’s where it really happened for me, and that’s when “The Tonight Show” took notice. I’d been on the show and I did OK, but on Letterman, I could be a smartass, a wise guy. It didn’t seem appropriate with Johnny (Carson).