Jay Leno has long held a reputation as one of the hardest-working men in show business.
It’s a drive that took the Andover kid from asking Boston bars if he could please try out some jokes to hosting NBC’s “Tonight Show” — and performing stand-up 150 nights a year while doing it.
Retirement? Hah. Leno, 66, laughs in the face of retirement.
Since his departure from “The Tonight Show” in 2014, he’s had more time for his stand-up gigs — he now performs more than 200 nights a year — and to indulge his love of automobiles. He writes a column for Popular Mechanics and has authored the forewards for some automotive history books, does charity and voice-over work, and hosts two versions of “Jay Leno’s Garage” — one on CNBC and another on YouTube, where the car buff explains what makes the 1950 Mercedes Benz Racecar Transporter unique, or why the 1960 Panhard PL 17 is unusual for a French car.
“In Massachusetts, I was the laziest person. In California, I’m the hardest-working,” he quips.
The 1973 Emerson College alum and Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ 2011 Man of the Year returns to his home state just once this year, to perform stand-up at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford on Sunday.
Q. Growing up in Andover, did you always want to be a professional comedian? Were your parents funny?
A. My parents were really funny, actually. My dad was Italian and my mother was from Scotland, and it was the funniest combination. [But] in Massachusetts, when you’re trying to do comedy, you get: “Oh, I’m sorry.” My parents would say [whispers grumpily], “Yeah, Jay’s trying to do this comedy thing.” And they’d get, [whispers] “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Andover back then was more rural, and not the kind of place you grew up thinking of showbiz. My neighbor lady used to say, “Unless ya fah-thah’s a comedian, ya can’t be a comedian! Unless ya fah-thah was one! That’s just the way it goes in show business.”
Q. Were you interested in comedy when you attended Emerson College?
A. Today, at Emerson, you can major in comedy, but when I went there, it was dramatic and serious: “Yes, that’s all very nice, but now we’re going to do ‘A View From the Bridge,’ by Arthur Miller.” Back then, Emerson had makeshift clubs [but] it was more, “Stop your war machine, man!” poems, and people singing songs — not a lot of people doing comedy.
Q. Did you start out doing stand-up in Boston?
A. Yeah, back then, there was the Combat Zone, with strip clubs and that ilk. Which, when you’re 19 and 20, was fun to [perform in]. Or, to get practice, I’d walk into a Boston bar and [ask to perform].
The biggest club I did was Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike, a jazz club. I met Lennie [Sogoloff], and I got to [meet] Buddy Rich, Miles Davis. That was the first time I played to people who wanted to listen. College kids might not have a great attention span, but jazz audiences were there to listen.
Q. Then you moved out to California. When did you feel you’d made it?
A. In a sense, I felt I’d made it as soon as I got to California. You could work every night — sometimes just for free food. When you’re a kid, and not married, no kids, you can live cheaply. So that’s what I did.
I didn’t have anyplace to live — I was arrested twice for vagrancy. I’d be in the cop car the whole shift. You’d tell them jokes and they let you out at 6 a.m. when their shift ended. After a while, cops would come by and say, “Hey, it’s that comedian! Hey, kid, you find a place to live yet? Get in!”
Q. Was “The Tonight Show” always your ultimate goal?
A. “The Tonight Show” was everyone’s ultimate goal. TV had more weight back then. There were only three channels [so] if you didn’t watch [Johnny] Carson, [the only alternatives were] a rerun of some show or an old movie. If you were on “The Tonight Show,” there was a good chance everyone in America saw you.
Q. You still perform now some 200 nights a year. What do you like about it?
A. The fact that it’s all you. When you do a TV show, you need 175 people, lighting, line producers, caterers, limo guy. On the road, you just show up. It’s the most primitive form of entertainment — just one person talking. With the exception of the microphone, it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. We live in an age where people don’t gather anymore. When you’re in a room doing comedy, you’re sharing something. Laughter’s infectious.
Q. Besides stand-up, you’ve got “Jay Leno’s Garage” on YouTube and CNBC. Have you always been a big car guy?
A. Yeah, the insides, outsides, how to put a car together. I never really was into sports [or music]. I remember being on “The Tonight Show” and saying, “My next guest has sold more records than Elvis and the Beatles combined . . . ” and thinking: “Who is this?”
Growing up in Andover, I remember pedaling my bike uptown. My friend Louie drove by with a girl, and said, “Hey man, you going uptown?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll meet you there!” He roars off. By the time I got there, everyone was gone. I said, “Man, I gotta get my license.”
Q. What was your first car?
A. A ’34 Ford pickup. I got it when I was 14 and worked on it until I had my license.
Q. How many cars do you have now?*
A. Eh, you sound like my wife. I think, like, 150. Something goofy.
Q. I saw you on a really funny “Breaking Bad” parody you did recently with Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.”
A. Yeah, I’ve had fun going back to work with Jimmy. I’m going back [again soon], actually.
Q. I always got a kick out of it when you appeared as yourself in TV and movies. How does that work?
A. Basically, they just say, “Can we use this clip?” And you make sure it’s not for porn.
At the Zeiterion Theatre, 684 Purchase St., New Bedford, Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets: $79-$125, 508-994-2900, www.zeiterion.org
Interview has been edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @laurendaley1.