For any late-night TV junkie, Jay Leno reigned as the king for 21 years.
Now he’s back to his first love — standup comedy — as he makes his Alberta Bair Theater debut as part of a national tour that will include more than 200 shows. Leno will perform two shows on Nov. 18, at 6 and 9 p.m. at the ABT.
Skyview High School All Naturals, an auditioned extracurricular a cappella group under the direction of Amy Logan, will open with a 20-minute set of pop tunes. Tickets range in price from $51 to $81.
In a recent phone interview with The Billings Gazette, Leno talked about how his struggle with dyslexia made him work harder and how he developed his comedy techniques trying to make his mom laugh.
Leno won an Emmy Award during his stint hosting “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and is known as a lovable voiceover artist, voicing such memorable characters as Jay Limo in the 2006 animated film "Cars."
His latest venture, “Jay Leno’s Garage,” has drawn an international following on the web and earned the prolific performer another Emmy. His papers have been installed at the Library of Congress, along with those of Groucho Marx and the late Johnny Carson, who preceded Leno as host of “The Tonight Show.”
For all that, Leno is just a regular guy who loves to talk (and drive) his huge collection of cars and motorcycles. He likes to joke that he went into show business so he could earn money to buy his dream cars.
“I’m 66 and I got 10 years left (to ride motorcycles.). It hurts more now when I crash and it takes longer to heal,” Leno said.
Leno said when he was diagnosed with dyslexia as a youngster, his mother told him he had to work twice as hard as the other kids.
“That has actually paid off,” Leno said.
His mother, Catherine, also instigated Leno's need to make people laugh. Catherine, who died in 1993, emigrated from Scotland when she was 11, forced to come to the U.S. to work because her mother had run off and left her father to raise the children.
"Mom had no education; she didn’t get past the second grade," Leno said. "As a kid, I sensed a sadness in my mother. Whenever I would catch her alone and looking sad, I would always do something funny to cheer her up. At the time, I thought I was doing some public service.”
Leno is quick with the one-liners, and just as he told the story of his mother’s challenges, he tossed in the line, “I spent the first half of my life trying not to embarrass my mom and the last half trying not to embarrass my wife.”
Leno, who left “The Tonight Show” for good in 2014, was criticized for not allowing Conan O'Brien to host the show as planned in 2009. In the end, Jimmy Fallon replaced Leno.
Leno said he misses the daily rigors of following the news and pulling jokes out of what others see as contentious or absurd new events, made even more so during the political season that just ended.
His standup show still tracks the headlines, but the pace is slower because Leno said he's not obligated to daily deadlines.
"The best thing about being on the road is you can tell the same jokes. You can try it out on a Monday and by the weekend, it will be polished," Leno said.
Leno said politics aren't as much fun to poke fun at as they were during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
“Clinton was horny and Bush was stupid. That was it. But now there is a lot of negativity and a lot of anger out there,” Leno said.
Americans can forgive anything but hypocrisy, so it’s easy to make fun of the preacher with the hooker. When a rare guest came on the show and blatantly admitted to flaws, the audience ate it up.
“I remember when Charlie Sheen was on and he said, ‘I like cocaine and hookers’ and everyone applauded. What’s funnier than that? It was like the funniest thing they had ever seen.”
Leno rarely invites other standup comics to open his show because he said he worries that their set might not fit with his.
“I don’t work dirty,” he said. “I go to some of these comedy clubs and you have to be a gynecologist to understand what they are talking about.”