Jay Leno interview (Cobb Energy Centre August 27), talking Jimmy Fallon, Robin Williams, Rod Man

Jay Leno was a hard man to nab an interview with when he was doing "The Tonight Show." It was obvious why: he was busy doing his own show interviewing other folks and telling a gazillion jokes.

But now that he's six months removed from doing a daily show, he's performing more stand-up gigs, including a stop Wednesday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, one of about 200 he'll do this year. (Buy tickets here)

Leno was happy to talk on the phone from Los Angeles this morning and I got to spend 48 minutes discussing a variety of topics including his so-called "retirement," Jimmy Fallon, Robin Williams and the winner of "Last Comic Standing" Rod Man.

“I enjoy being a road comic again," he said. "It’s really fun to concentrate on a joke. When I did ‘The Tonight Show,’ I did different jokes in the same place. Now I do the same jokes in different places.”

Then again, he never left the road. The notorious workaholic did at least 100 comedy shows a year, mostly on weekends, even while taping "The Tonight Show." He rarely took vacations.

He sounded relaxed and realistic about how TV has changed since he became "The Tonight Show" host in 1992. And he has zero plans to do another late-night talk show no matter how many networks ask. Here are excerpts from my talk with him:

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Q: You used to do the Punchline back in the 1980s. What’s your memories of the club?

A: I remember playing there once and was so flattered when (former Atlanta Mayor) Andrew Young came in and wanted to do some stand-up. I was so honored to have him there, such a distinguished guy. I was stunned when he started doing jokes he probably told his friends in junior high. It really made me laugh because he was just not a comedian but a civil rights legend doing goofball jokes.

Q: Do you do a lot of current events jokes on the road?

A: It's tricky. Most people, especially during the summer, don't follow current events and don't know what's going on. Consequently, I try not to be too current. Folks who go to clubs, chances are they didn't watch the news. Plus, a news joke that was funny Monday may not be so funny by Thursday. People move on. Facts change.

Q: Your contract is technically up with NBC next month, but they had Jimmy Fallon start early. How do you feel he’s doing?

A: I'm really proud of Jimmy. He's doing a terrific show. People try to create these feuds but we really are good friends. And you got to know when to step down. When you're 35, 40 years old talking to a 22-year-old supermodel, that's cool. When you're 64, you're that creepy old guy, thank you. You have to know when to go. I'm glad we kept the show No. 1. I have to admit I miss my friends, but I'm really enjoying myself. I have no regrets. I'm very happy the way things turned out.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Q: You worked with Fallon on a “House of Cards” parody where you push him in front of a train to take back “The Tonight Show.” Does it bug you that you have that reputation? (He lost “The Tonight Show” in 2009 to Conan O’Brien but got the hosting job back less than a year later.)

A: It's so stupid. I'm just amazed. People really have no idea. On the one hand, you're like this jerk. On the other hand, you're some sort of evil genius who demanded that NBC give the show back to you. That's not how it works. These are all business decisions based on ratings and whatever. That's show business.

Q: What did you think of New York Times reporter Bill Carter's two best-selling books about late night TV?

A: The first one [1995's "The Late Shift'] was a best seller. I don't think the second one [2011's "The War For Late Night"] did nearly as well. By then, I don't think nearly as many people cared. I like Bill. I don't think it's a reflection of him. TV isn't nearly as powerful a medium as it used to be.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Q: People still watch a lot of TV. It's just people no longer watch the same TV.

A: It's all about niche programming. It's so scattered. The most powerful time in TV was maybe 1965 to 1985. When you tell young people TV Guide was the most popular, powerful magazine in America, they look at you like you're crazy. It's like a pamphlet now! The only thing TV excels at is immediacy: the Super Bowl, a horrible tragedy. Nobody gathers around their TV anymore.

Q: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot already, but what’s your take on Robin Williams (who passed away two weeks ago)?

A: I love seeing Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks in their 80s and 90s reminisce about the past. When (Jerry) Seinfeld and I hang out, we talk about the early days at the clubs and the people we worked with and the terrible gigs. The sad part is I won't be able to grow old and do that with Robin. What I liked about Robin is as big a star as he was, he never badmouthed people. He always respected the people who helped him along the way. He would always help out young comedians or a homeless guy. He was genuinely a kind, decent person who always kept it at a higher level. He never attacked other comics.

Q: You are often a target of that.

A: A lot of it was directed at me. I never fell into the trap of responding. People don't like to see rich people fighting...  I never heard Robin put down anyone that way.... For a guy who suffered from depression, he was always upbeat and kind. He knew how to make people laugh... I'll miss him tremendously. We didn't hang out much because we live separate lives on different coasts. But we always had a bond that comics have. There's an old joke about comedians. Comedians think it's hilarious. The joke is that a comic is working in Vegas. He goes back to his hotel room and the phone rings. It's a sexy voice. 'Is this the comedian from the show? My name is Felicity and I lead the Folly's show. I saw you tonight and thought you were really sexy and funny. I would love to come over and spend the night, leave in the morning. Is it okay for me to come by? The comic responds, 'Did you see the first show or the second show?' "

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Q: You did some mentoring on "Last Comic Standing." A local guy Rod Man ended up winning.

A: Rod Man won? I'm glad he did. I liked him. I thought he would win. He had a way of phrasing stuff. I liked his routine about the ugly baby. He never used the word ugly. 'That's not a living room baby!' That was very clever because he chose his words carefully. His economy of words. I like the fact he didn't do the obvious black people do this, white people do that. I"m tired of those jokes. I liked the way he set jokes up and kept at it. He had 10 or 15 different ways of saying the same thing and each one was funny - yet without being insulting.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Q: You did 4,500 shows for "The Tonight Show." That has to be like 90,000 jokes!

A: I don't know how many I did but my monologue was six minutes in 1992. By the last 10-15 years, it was up to 13 minutes. You run out of guests who have anything to say. And you live in a world where everybody is handled, where they have all these PR people. I remember we booked Katarina Witt, the ice skater, because she was in Playboy. Her publicist asked me not to mention Playboy. But that's why she's even booked! She didn't end up going on. I have to ask the questions. She could choose not to answer them. This is my job!

Q: Your most famous interview was probably Hugh Grant in 1995 (after his infamous encounter with a hooker.)

A: Hugh came to the show himself. No handlers. Nobody. There wasn't a lot of prep.  He was very self effacing. It worked out. People will accept anything but hypocrisy. When Charlie Sheen said he loved hookers, loved cocaine. Okay. I think it set him back a bit but girls still like Charlie. At least he's honest!

Q: You have more free time. I figure you must work on your cars and motorcycles. How many do you have now?

A: 30 cars and 90 motorcycles. I like cars and motorcycles. I love working with my hands. Show business is like champagne. You can't drink it every day or you'll become an alcoholic. In the comedy business, some people think you're funny. Some people don't. It's personal taste. When you fix something that's not working, nobody can say it's not running.

Q: When are we going to see you next on TV?

A: I have a show coming up on Sunday on CNBC doing a car show at Pebble Beach. It's based on my web series "Jay Leno's Garage." It's fun to do something that is not ratings driven. If you come back with something similar to what you did, what's the point of that? It will inevitably be less than what it was. It's not going to be No. 1. So I do voiceover work or specials on places like CNBC that are car related.

Q: Speaking of cars, were you jealous when Jerry Seinfeld did that web show where he interviews comics in classic cars? That could have been your idea!

A: When Jerry started that show ["Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee"], he told me experts were telling him to keep it to five minutes or less, that nobody would be interested in it being longer. Jerry's thing is he loves to just hang out with his comic friends and make each other laugh. It's not like a talk show where they're talking about their new project. They hang out. I'm really proud of him. He's done a great job with that. [Check out Jay's visit with Jerry on the show here.]

Q: So you aren't going to do another talk show, are you?

A: Talk show? No. I don't think so. I had a good time, thank you very much. I enjoy other people doing it. The cultural references have changed. I can't pretend to know hip-hop songs. It's just different.

Q: Any interesting comedy shows coming up?

A: I'm going to Afghanistan to see the troops. Those are a lot of fun. The first time I did it was in Kuwait [in the early 1990s]. We took a two-hour helicopter ride and we land in a desert. I see about 60 guys sitting in the sand. I asked the commander, 'Where's the stage?' He said to just stand on the tank. I said, 'Okay, is there a microphone?' No mike. Okay. It's like 118 degrees. I thought, 'This going to be horrible.'  start telling jokes. They're falling over laughing. They probably hadn't heard a new joke in months. Suddenly, this is the greatest audience I've ever had. I've got to get me more of these tank shows!


Jay Leno benefit concert

8 p.m. Wednesday. $50-$197 plus applicable fees. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 770-916-2800, www.ticketmaster.com.