Jay Leno still remembers the moment he fell in love.
While riding his bike around Andover, Massachusetts, the future TV star spotted a man polishing a sleek sports car.
“I was so mesmerized,” recalled Leno, who, at age 9, had never seen a vehicle like the 1951 Jaguar XK120. “I was staring at it for about 10 minutes. Finally the guy motioned me to come over and said, ‘Hey, you wanna sit in this thing?” I said, ‘Sure.’ ... It was an unbelievable moment.”
That experience ignited a passion in Leno, who channeled his love of all things automotive into an Emmy Award-winning Web series that boasts more than 2.1 million subscribers on YouTube. “Jay Leno’s Garage” launched six years ago; his top-rated CNBC show of the same title debuted in 2015.
The fourth season of “Jay Leno’s Garage,” which premiered April 19, finds the longtime host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” getting behind the wheel with celebrities ranging from chef Guy Fieri and pop parody artist "Weird Al" Yankovic to filmmaker Tyler Perry, musician James Taylor and action star and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Leno, 68, even spends some time in San Luis Obispo County. In the episode "Down and Dirty," which was shot in November 2017 and aired May 10, he and pro skateboarder Bucky Lasek learn about desert orienteering while exploring the Oceano Dunes in an Ariel Nomad.
"I never figured it out. I’m dyslexic, so to me it’s the ultimate nightmare," Leno joked. "As soon as I saw the compass, I went, 'That’s it. I’m out of here.' ”
Leno brings his standup comedy act to Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles on June 15. (He was originally slated to perform there in September 2017, but postponed that show due to scheduling conflicts.) He recently chatted with The Tribune about his obsession with wheels.
Q: What’s the connection between being a comedian and being a car buff?
A: There’s an old saying: “When the head and the hands work together, that’s when the heart’s happiest.” And I think it’s true. When you work with your hands, you get a certain amount of satisfaction. And when you work with your brain, you get a certain amount of satisfaction. If you spend part of your day doing a little bit of both, then I think that’s how you keep it altogether.
Comedy is so subjective. ... If I tell you a joke, you might think it’s hilarious and someone else might hate it. Well, you’re both right. If someone doesn’t think something’s funny, there’s nothing you can do about it. But when you take something that’s broken and you repair it, no one can say it’s not fixed.
Q: What was the starting point for “Jay Leno’s Garage?”
A: When I did “The Tonight Show,” I was never a big sports guy or a big music guy. I had to study up and fake it a bit. Whereas this, this is what I like doing. This is my hobby.
Whenever I want celebrities on the show, I call them up and go, “Look, I want you to come on. I don’t care about your cocaine bust. I don’t care about your divorce. I don’t care how well your movie deal (went). We’re just going to talk cars and motorcycles.”
Q: Which cars did you lust after as a kid?
A: Definitely all of them. I grew up in a little town in New England where ... everybody’s dad had a (Ford) Galaxie or a Falcon or a (Chevrolet) Impala or a truck.
You never saw anything cool. It was the kind of town where you’d hang around the McDonald’s all night and you go home at 11 o’clock. Then at 11:30, the phone rang and it’d be your friend (saying), “Hey, a Corvette just went through.” (anguished howl) “Oh, I missed it!”
Q: So sitting in the front seat of that Jaguar XK210 was a big deal.
A: You realize how one little incident can change your love of a vehicle — or hatred of a vehicle, if somebody treated you terribly. So that’s what I do whenever I see little kids staring at my car. If they want to sit in it, I let them sit in it. Because I know, 25 years from now, they’re going to want to go out and buy one of those. ...
(A Jaguar XK120) was the first car I bought when I got some money. ... I’ve had that car 34 years; I bought it in ’84. Obviously something rubbed off.
Q: How many cars do you have? (Leno's collection is housed in his Big Dog Garage in Burbank.)
A: You sound like my wife. (chuckles) About 181 cars, 160 motorcycles. ... They all run.
Q: What's one of the most prized cars in your collection?
A: My '65 Buick. I bought that (in 1972) when I came to California, before I had a place to live, I lived in that car for a while. I (drove) my wife in that car. I got married in that car. I drove that car to my first "Tonight Show" (episode). I drove it to my last "Tonight Show."
Q: If a network invited you to come back to late-night television, would you?
A: No, of course not. You can’t make lightning strike twice. When you’re 40 and you’re talking to this 26-year-old supermodel, it’s sexy. When you’re (68), you’re the creepy old guy. There’s nothing dumber than seeing guys my age pretend to know all about hip hop. You have to play the age you are. ...
And secondly, you can’t do these shows (the same way). ... You don’t have the budget you had in the old days, because the audience isn’t there anymore. You can’t afford the band. You can’t afford the writers. ...
That’s the reason I went into “Jay’s Leno's Garage.” Nobody can say, “Well, it’s not as good” or “He’s not as sharp” or “He’s fat.” (chuckles) You do something so totally different from what you used to do that it doesn’t draw a comparison.
8 p.m. June 15
Vina Robles Amphitheatre, 3800 Mill Road, Paso Robles
$50 to $85
"Jay Leno's Garage" airs at 10 p.m. Thursdays on CNBC. For more information, go to www.cnbc.com/jay-lenos-garage.