Jay Leno is arguably a television icon with an astounding 21 years under his belt as the host of The Tonight Show on NBC. Sure he’s a well-known comedian whose jokes will tickle anyone, but he’s also a complex man with many interests—many of which have certainly kept him away from the spotlight in recent years. When Leno, 66, left The Tonight Show in 2014, he pushed his energy and focus onto other projects including building his massive car collection, ramping up his stand-up comedy dates, launching a successful car show and spending time with his longtime wife, Mavis. Here are numerous reasons the former NBC frontman has quietly stayed away from the public eye.
He’s obsessed with cars
To say Leno is a car enthusiast would be an understatement. He’s got a hangar near the Burbank airport which houses his collection of 130 cars, 93 motorcycles, spare car parts, and other car memorabilia. He even employs a staff of four full-time mechanics to keep everything in tip-top shape and to even help restore battered and bruised vehicles. “I never thought of it as a collection,” Leno told the Los Angeles Times. “Probably in the mid-1980s, I just started to keep stuff.”
While most car collectors focus on a particular brand, era or type of car, Leno’s taste is wide ranging from vintage Bentleys, super fast and super expensive McLarens and Lamborghinis down to American Muscle Cars. His love of cars started back when he was 14. At the time, he purchased a 1934 Ford truck and he worked on it until he got his driver’s license. From there, the rest is history.
Because Leno’s collection is so famous, fans are desperate to gift him cars and are also eager to buy his collection when his passes away. Leno says his wife, Mavis, gets business cards from men hoping to get in on the action. “It drives my wife bananas,” Leno quipped. “People come up to her all the time.”
He’s got a little-known show about cars
In 2015, Leno returned to television but in a different fashion. He launched his own show centered around cars called Jay Leno’s Garage—which airs on both CNBC and YouTube. The show welcomes stars who simply tell want to discuss their love affair with automobiles. “People have connections with cars,” Leno told People about the series which has two seasons under its belt. “When you call these big stars up, my opening pitch is that I’m not going to talk about your career. I’m not going to talk about your movie, divorce, cocaine bust, or whatever it is.”
So far, he’s had on Kendall Jenner, Caitlyn Jenner, Nick Cannon, former Vice President Joe Biden, who raced Colin Powell, and more. But sometimes big Hollywood or political names aren’t always the draw. Quite often, as Leno tells it, regular every-day people have extraordinary stories to tell about the cars they own too. He tells the site about a 94-year-old woman who offered to sell her old car to him. Leno bought, restored and it took back for a test drive with the old lady. The joy she had made the entire experience worth it. “Some cars are valuable and some I just have sentimental attachment and they have a great story,” Leno said. “You wind up buying a lot of stories.”
While there is no shortage of star power on his car show, Leno would like to have one longtime friend and rival David Letterman on an episode. “I would love to have Dave,” Leno explained to Extra. “I should give him a call. Dave’s kind of quirky, but it would be great to have him on — he’s a real car guy.”
He’s staying away from politics, thus the spotlight
These days, the easiest way for comedians and celebrities alike to get a moment in the spotlight is to say something funny, outrageous or offensive about President Donald Trump or his administration. But as Leno sees it, he has nothing to say. In fact, he’s thankful he’s no longer doing The Tonight Show so he can dodge the conversation altogether.
“I don’t want to interview Trump,” Leno told Fox News referencing his show. “I came up in the era when Clinton was horny and Bush was dumb. It was a simpler, funny time. Now it is all race baiting and homophobia and Islamophobia.” The comedian says there’s a side of politics emerging he’s not a fan of, it perhaps is persuading him to steer clear of the spotlight. “There are still plenty of jokes there, but there is an ugliness to this campaign that I don’t find attractive at all, and I really don’t want to joke about somebody saying, ‘All Muslims should be kicked out of the country’ or ‘because a guy is Mexican, he can’t be a judge.’ It is tricky to find the joke there,” he said.
He enjoys spending time with his wife
When Leno isn’t tinkering under the hood of a hot ride or on a stage telling jokes, he’s probably snuggled up next to his wife, Mavis. The pair have been married for nearly 40 years and it’s an accomplishment Leno is quite proud of. He’s also become a relationship expert of sorts over the years. Leno told the Today show what makes his marriage so successful saying, “The trick is to marry, like, a normal person,” he said. “I always meet people who go, ‘I met this girl, she’s crazy, the sex is wonderful.’ [And I say] ‘I know, I know, but you know, when the sex is over, she’s still crazy.’ That’s the problem.”
But Leno got serious with his marriage advice. “Here’s the secret: You marry your conscience… you marry the person you wish you could be. That’s what I did,” he explained. “I’m in show business, which is a selfish profession, so I married a woman that works very hard for women’s rights and other issues like that and it balances out. You marry the person you wish you could be.”
Although they’ve deeply in love, the couple does not have any children. Mavis told the Washington Post why kids were never in the cards for them. “I remember telling my mother when I was seven or eight that I was never going to get married or have children,” she told the paper. “To me, this is the way women get caught.” She did bend on her marriage rule and doesn’t regret her decision. She can’t help but dote on her husband saying, “He is probably the single kindest human being I ever met.”
He’s still doing stand-up shows
Although Leno is no longer doing The Tonight Show, it doesn’t mean he’s quit telling jokes. He’s far from retired and hits the road doing an astounding 200 shows a year, according to a Q&A with the Boston Globe. It’s a job he’ll never get tired of for a number of reasons.
“The fact that it’s all you. When you do a TV show, you need 175 people, lighting, line producers, caterers, limo guy,” Leno explained of his love of stand-up comedy. “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.”
This spring, Leno returned to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., some three years after being recognized with the Mark Twain Prize. This time, he did his stand-up routine. He clued in fans on what his act is like these days. “Just telling a few jokes, trying to make a living,” Leno told WTOP. “I was a stand-up comedian before I got The Tonight Show and I was a stand-up comedian during The Tonight Show, and now that the show is over, that’s what I’m back to doing again. It’s fun! I actually like it. It’s actually really good.”
He’s busy writing columns and forewords
Leno is not only a talented comedian and a car expert, he’s also a gifted writer. When he’s not busy working his other jobs, he may be found behind the desk and on a laptop pouring out some incredible pieces about what else? Cars!
Leno’s got a column with Popular Mechanics, in which he talks about everything car related. From his father’s life as a car salesman to pieces on his favorite cars from his collection — where they come from and their backstory. Leno’s also been tapped to write several forewords in a number of automobile history books over the years—including Packard (1998), The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation (2012), Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow (2016), Drive Time: Watches Inspired by Automobiles, Motorcycles and Racing (2016).
It’s unclear if Leno ever attempted to mesh his love of cars with fiction to write his own novel or short story.
He’s embarrassed by his racing accident
Leno’s love for cars can sometimes come at a scary cost. While filming an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage in 2016, Leno was nearly killed in an accident. The comedian was fulfilling one of his dreams of riding in a 2,500-horsepower Hurst Hemi Under Glass drag-racing car with famed racer Bob Riggle. Unfortunately, the car flipped over several times, reports People.
The site adds the pair had just become their ride at California’s Irwindale Speedway when the accident occurred. Cameras were able to capture footage of Leno being tossed around and his face bracing for the worst. As the footage shows, this was no simple bump, but an accident that could have seriously caused harm or ended a life. Ever the comedian, when the crew rushed over to ask if he was okay, he quickly pretended to be the driver.
“This was certainly exciting,” Leno quipped to Riggle. “I’m fine. I’m okay. I do stuff like this every week. That’s why I have so many cars. I roll half of them half of the time.”
Although the men walked away unharmed, it was surely embarrassing. Especially for men who drive cars all day, every day.