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Jay Leno: I am a Liberal, Really

The late night host defends himself against charges of a conservative bias in a no-holds barred interview.
 
 
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Jay Leno says, “I’m not conservative. I’ve never voted that way in my life.” He “really worries” what a Dubya victory in November will do to the makeup of the Supreme Court. He believes “the wool was pulled over our eyes” with the Iraq war. He thinks the White House began using terrorism “as a crutch” after 9/11. He feels that during the campaign Kerry should “make Bush look as stupid as possible.” He believes “the media is in the pocket of the government, and they don’t do their job” so “you have people like Michael Moore who do it for them.” He has on his joke-writing staff a number of former professional speechwriters for Democratic candidates. “No Republicans.” When it comes to Bush, he doesn’t think his politics are much different from Letterman’s. “Does he show his dislike maybe a little more than I do? Probably.”

Leno used to read Mother Jones magazine.

Could it be? Is it possible? Is Leno, “the right comic,” really a closet lefty?

Sure seems that way, judging from his remarkably candid interview about his views on politics in general and the 2004 presidential race in particular. (Or is it just a new Leno strategy to win younger viewers, same as his new I'm-just-hangin'-out shirt sleeves which debuted on the show this week?)

Here’s how it came about. The phone rang a few months ago, and I didn’t check Caller ID.

“Hello, this is Jay Leno.”

“Oh, very funny,” I said, presuming this was yet another lame attempt by a friend to fool me with his god-awful celebrity impressions.

“No, it’s really me,” the voice insisted. “Jay Leno.”

Well, the voice did have that cartoonish high-pitched whine, like a cat being strangled, which is instantly recognizable as Leno’s.

“Oh God,” I blurted out, “you’re calling to yell at me.”

Leno had every reason to be pissed. In less than nine months, I had written two L.A. Weekly columns branding The Tonight Show host a Republican pawn. One expressed outrage at how Leno had partisanly promoted Ah-nuld’s candidacy and emceed Schwarzenegger’s victory party and gone soft on W. in his monologues. The second praised David Letterman for having “the brass balls to go where the cowardly White House news corps and corporate suck-up Leno fear to tread: presenting Dubya in all his dumb-ass glory.”

Ten days after that Letterman vs. Leno column was published on Apr. 30, Jay was on the phone to me. He didn’t scream. He didn’t lose his temper. But we did have a long and enthusiastic phone discussion about politics, all of which he put off the record. I dared him to give me an on-the-record interview. To my shock, he agreed. To my even greater amazement, on the very next Tonight Show, Leno had taken my bitching at him to heart. I had made the point that, since Clinton’s sex scandal was rife with humor, it was just as funny to examine what the heck you have to do in the Bush administration to get fired (since, by that time, no heads had rolled over the missing WMDs, or the war gone wrong in Iraq, or even the prison torture). Leno, in the middle of his monologue, was saying to America the exact words I had used to him: “What the heck do you have to do in the Bush administration to get fired?” Needless to say, I fell out of bed.

Leno made good on his promise. We sat down together in The Tonight Show ’s fabled Green Room where, in the beginning, Jay looked like he was getting a root canal. But the deeper we got into politics, the more he let his guard down, and dished.

You felt I was unfair to you.

I didn’t say that. I just thought maybe you didn’t have the facts. My first instinct is always to understand. If people say something about me, I go, “Okay, why do they say it?” When you’re in this business, if something goes wrong, it’s always your fault. It’s always my fault because my name is on the show. Put it this way: You never learn anything from a compliment. You learn things from criticism. And when I read yours, I wasn’t mad, like, “Oh, fuck her. I’ll call her up.” I was curious.

You know what I wrote. It was totally inappropriate for you to push Schwarzenegger’s candidacy and then emcee his victory party. It hurt your objectivity.

But I used to write jokes for Bill and Hillary Clinton. In fact, in Hillary’s book, she thanks me for writing jokes. And people went, “You’ve lost your objectivity.”

How can you think that didn’t hurt your objectivity?

No more than the Arnold thing. It makes me laugh. Because all through the Clinton administration I was so Mr. Democrat — “you and your Democratic friends” and having Hillary on and Al Franken. And then Arnold announces on our show, and then invites me to his party, and somebody asks would you introduce Arnold. And I said sure. And somehow that has turned into me actually campaigning. Some of that stuff about Schwarzenegger came from across the street.

Across the street?

Meaning other shows on other networks making big hay out of this. Which really made me laugh. I never have given money to any candidate in my life. I don’t show up supporting candidates. But because of this one incident, now I’m perceived as a Republican.

You told me on the phone you regretted having done it.

I don’t regret having done it — because the polls had closed. And Arnold is a friend of mine. I’ve known him for a long time. I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the next governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.” That’s all I said.

You talk a lot about how you bank your salary from NBC because you do all these other paying gigs. You get a lot of corporate gigs, and corporations don’t want Bush bashed because they’re giving huge amounts to his campaign.

There are all kinds of corporations. People think you’re doing something for Halliburton. No, there are a lot of companies that are independent, Democrat and, of course, a lot that are Republican as well.

You make a lot of money from the corporate gigs?

Oh yeah.

Do you think if you were perceived as bashing Bush, you would get as many corporate gigs as you do?

Um, if I were perceived as bashing anybody, I wouldn’t be a comedian. You know I did the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year, and this is the most partisan crowd. You do a joke about Bush, and half of them sit like this [his hands are in his lap] and the other half are applauding. And then I do Kerry jokes, and half the people are like this [his hands are in his lap again]. It’s like the most juvenile atmosphere you could possible imagine. And every now and then you do a joke that will cross both sides, so they both laugh. Did I give you the Nancy Reagan example? Years ago, I did a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and it was when Reagan was in office. I said Nancy Reagan had won the Humanitarian of the Year award. I’m so glad she beat out that conniving little bitch Mother Teresa. Well, everyone applauded because it’s so ridiculous. Even people who were Republicans laughed at it.

But I’m not the only journalist who has perceived for a while that you seem to be bashing Clinton as if it were back in the Clinton administration instead of bashing Bush.

Now when you say bashing Clinton, I never questioned his patriotism. If you take doing the occasional sex joke, to me that’s not bashing. I will never denigrate or make fun of John Kerry’s service record. He is a true hero who served his country. I may make fun of the fact he mentions it a lot. But I will never call his character into question. I heard some guy on talk radio the other day going on about Kerry’s medals being phony. Now, I won’t even do jokes about that because I don’t want to plant that seed.

You’ve done jokes about him allegedly throwing the medals.

But that was harmless. It’s not as if he didn’t earn them.

But you’ve picked up on the Republicans bashing Teresa.

I did one tonight that she went to Wendy’s and tried to order the pheasant. Is that a bashing joke? Or is that a rich person’s joke?

The billion dollars that Teresa Heinz Kerry has from the tragedy of her husband dying is considered okay, but Laura Bush is untouchable?

First of all, I know we’ve done plenty of jokes about Laura Bush and the twins. When the girls were in trouble, when they were drinking, it was weeks and weeks of jokes about that. There were tons of them.

Have you ever told a joke about Laura Bush? I don’t remember one.

Yes, I said she was a librarian, so how did she meet Bush? Where could those two have possibly run into each other?

But that’s denigrating Bush. That’s not denigrating her.

It’s a little tricky because she’s not doing anything. [Long pause.] You know, comedy’s a bit like the Mafia. You try to avoid the wives and the family.

How do you make sure your political comedy is evenhanded?

I don’t have a file. So I don’t keep track. I get letters all the time that say, “How come you never make fun of Bush.” And I go, “What show are you watching?” I probably do twice as many Bush jokes as I do Kerry jokes. And then I get letters from people who say the same thing about Kerry. But I do a lot more Bush jokes.

I suspect that Letterman is more anti-Bush than you.

Does he show his dislike maybe a little more than I do? Probably. But to me, Dave is a TV broadcaster. I am a comedian. It’s just different. My job is to get laughs. For what I’m doing, sometimes sarcasm and irony do not work as well as a joke. But I don’t think our politics are probably much different. I’m also at a disadvantage. Because you know you can never ask Dave to answer any of these questions.

People always say that you can’t stand it if people don’t like you.

I don’t mind that people don’t like me. I don’t like them not to like me for the wrong reason. If someone says, “I don’t like Jay Leno because he’s a conservative,” I call him and I go, “I’m not conservative. I’ve never voted that way in my life. Where do you get that from?” I explain my position, and there’s not much more I can do. When my wife got involved in helping the women in Afghanistan, I took a lot of flack for that for my obvious left-wing leanings. “Leno and his left-wing buddies helping Afghanistan rather than the children here.” I got beat up for weeks for that. Just like the Arnold thing. But enough time goes by and people forget that. Arnold was the last thing to happen, so people are still on that.

When you and I were talking on the phone, you said, yeah, maybe because of 9/11, maybe because of the Iraq invasion, there were periods when you gave Bush a pass.

Oh yeah, during 9/11, I gave Bush a pass. And I remember about two months had gone by, and then one day I sensed that maybe people were ready. And I remember I said, “Folks, if you don’t laugh at this joke, that means the terrorists have won.” And it got a huge laugh. And it wasn’t that funny. But they sensed that, now that it looks like the administration is using this as a crutch, it’s okay to come in slowly with the jokes and roll them in. I remember that joke was a turning point.

And you admit you gave Bush another pass because of Iraq?

When the war starts and troops go over, you give our president the benefit of the doubt. And then you realize the wool was pulled over our eyes here a little bit. I remember they always said the Vietnam War was over when Walter Cronkite said, “This is wrong.” Up to that point, was he a sellout? No, he was just reporting the news as he saw it. For the first few months of the war, the jokes all tended to be rah-rah. Anything other than Bush. Jokes against Osama bin Laden. And the French.

You went totally hog-wild with the French jokes.

Well, there’s nothing funnier to me than the French. The French Resistance is probably the biggest mythical joke that ever existed. There were four guys in the French Resistance. They couldn’t hand over the Jewish people fast enough. Oh, please, don’t tell me about the French. The French have all sorts of secret deals with Saddam and everybody else for two cents a liter. It’s an easy target.

At what point in the Iraq war did you start joking about Bush again?

I think it really started with Bush saying “Mission Accomplished” and landing on the aircraft carrier. That was probably the point where it’s obvious to the audience this is turning into a political tool. When it’s obvious to the audience what’s happening, then it works. Look, you don’t change anybody’s mind with comedy. You just reinforce what they already believe.

What’s funny about Bush as far as you’re concerned?

Saying you don’t read books. Oh, I think the mispronouncing of the words. I don’t know if you’ve seen this thing we do, “Bush’s Spanish is better than his English”? We show Bush babbling away in perfect Spanish. And then you cut to show his English is awkward. We don’t doctor the tapes. So that’s something everybody can relate to.

Is it easier to make fun of Cheney than Bush?

I did a joke the other night saying, “They’re thinking of dropping Dick Cheney from the ticket. Oh great. Keep the dumb guy.” That was the gag. [I laugh.] Oh, see, now that’s your kind of joke. If I did that joke about Kerry . . .

But Kerry’s not stupid.

No, but some equivalent joke. I did a joke the other night that didn’t get any kind of reaction. I said, “I learned a piece of trivia about John Kerry at the convention: Did you know he was in Vietnam? Apparently, he was a soldier there.” It kind of went right by them. The thing is that I’m just here to tell the joke. I really don’t have any personal ax to grind. And I try to keep a sense of fair play. This is not a bully pulpit. You try to do what reasonably fair people would think of as a fair joke.

Some weeks ago, you had a really hilarious skit with the Bush look-alike, and you asked tougher questions than the White House press corps. Did you look at the ratings?

The ratings are laughs . . . if it got a big laugh. I always say comics make the mistake that they start off as comedians, then they become humorists, then they become satirists, then they become commentators, then they’re out of show business. That’s sort of the way it goes. I don’t want to be preached to as a member of the audience. I like to hear a joke. And if I’ve learned something after I’ve laughed, well, that’s pretty good. And if I’ve learned something before I’ve laughed, I don’t enjoy it as much.

The White House strategy is to ridicule Kerry every single day of the campaign. And obviously The Tonight Show will be the first to pick up on that. How do you decide if you’re being used to further some political party’s ends?

Nobody from the White House calls or leaks us stuff. You see a picture that appears in the paper, like Kerry at NASA, and you roll with it. If it’s something funny, like Dukakis in a tank, Bush with a sombrero, Kerry in that colonoscopy suit, you use it.

Do you personally think this is a more important election than some of the others?

[Sighs.] Yeah, it is. I remember in college, and up until recently, I could have a political discussion without people walking out of the room, or telling me to screw off. There’s hostility now. I mean, it’s literally brother against brother. I have friends who won’t even speak now because one is a Bush guy and one is a Kerry guy. And I say, “You really think there’s that big a difference between these two parties?” Okay, obviously there is. When it comes to Supreme Court judges, yeah, I really worry. But I’m not sure what Kerry is going to do that much differently in Iraq. He says today he has a plan, but he doesn’t want to say what it is. Hello. I remember Nixon was going to end the war.

What do you read?

Different columnists. I like to read both sides and get everybody’s point of view. What I go for is editorials and commentary. When I was a kid, I used to read everything: Mother Jones ,Time ,Newsweek and The New Republic .

And TV news?

I watch MSNBC. I watch CNN. And I also go to Fox News to see what their take is. It’s fascinating that they can go a whole year without mentioning Osama bin Laden. You’re aware this is a Republican thing.

Do you think it’s weird that talk radio is all right all the time?

No, it’s not weird. Because liberal people don’t need to hear their view expressed over and over again. I think some people on the right need to hear this constant reinforcement, whereas I don’t find that necessary.

When you interview people for the writing staff, what if somebody comes in and says, “Look, I have to warn you, I’m a proud liberal,” or “I’m a proud conservative”?

They are. I have on my staff a rabbi, I have a number of former speechwriters, and one guy had written comedy before. The others were all professional speechwriters for primarily Democratic candidates. Actually, there are no Republicans. They wrote jokes that were good. And everybody was hired without an interview. It’s based on material.

Were your parents political?

No, not at all. My mother came from the school of, “Well, they must know things that we don’t.” That’s what my mother always used to say.

But I think that’s part of your beliefs.

Let me ask you this. Can you figure out my politics watching the monologue?

You really want to know what I think?

Yes.

I think that having grown up in Boston, having been in a middle-class family, and having been active on behalf of unions — I know about that — I actually think you’re probably left of center. But I think there’s a fear inside of you that you don’t want to piss off authority. It comes from your mother, this don’t-rock-the-boat mentality.

Is there anything wrong with making authority laugh at themselves?

The current crew in the White House doesn’t seem to laugh much at themselves.

The interesting thing is, I have found that the Republicans respond much more to jokes about themselves than the Democrats do. Democrats take it very, very seriously. You know, when Al Gore was here in 2000, we said we want to do this bit, and then it was, “Can we run it past our people?” “Can we make these changes?” Then the day of the show, “We’re going to pass.” Bush shows up. We had a bit where we’re playing Jeopardy , and he’s going to look kind of stupid. But then, in the end, the joke’s on me. “Yeah, fine, whatever you want.” It couldn’t have been easier.

Here’s my problem with the monologue. You can tell that something’s featured on The Drudge Report, the writers have seen it, and the monologue is playing off that. But there’s a lot of other news that gets ignored. How come there’s no humor made of the fact that Cheney is making people take loyalty oaths before anyone is allowed at his rallies?

I did a Cheney joke tonight. The joke was, “Cheney said terrorism is the perception of weakness. He made it from an undisclosed location.” Let me explain what happens with a joke. You have to repeat information they already know. For example, if it made the headlines today, you go, “Thank you for coming to the show tonight. As you know, you all signed your loyalty oaths.” If they go, “What’s he talking about?” then I’m still talking, and they’re still explaining the joke to each other.

Even when Republicans are going to ridicule Kerry from now until the election?

But what’s his job? To not fall into that trap, and to make Bush look as stupid as possible.

The media seems to only present the Republican spin and to not present the other side of what’s going on.

I believe the media is in the pocket of the government, and they don’t do their job. They have people like Michael Moore who do it for them.

You do believe that the media is in the pocket of the government?

Yeah, I think to a certain extent. For example, I can watch TV news. If I don’t like that, I have the option of going to the Internet and picking up what may be fact, may be rumor, may be just raw footage. But at least I have the ability to seek out and get news now where I want to get it, which I never could. Unless you’re lazy, as most Americans are, you really can get any news you want. Go on the Internet and get raw footage from Iraq right now, because some guy is broadcasting what they don’t want you to see.

The FCC chairman maintains just what you were saying: that there are so many other forms of information, you’re not necessarily limited to Big Media–owned TV news.

Think of the news as a car. If you go in to buy a car, and you’re told it’s a brand-new perfect car, and then you find it’s a piece of crap and say, “Hey, I got screwed.” There’s a reason television is free. What do you get for nothing? Nothing.

But surely “Jaywalking” [Leno’s man-in-the-street segment] shows you what morons Americans are.

You get the government you deserve.

If actors or musicians came on your show, and they decided to use it as a forum to start saying anti-Bush stuff, what would you do?

Instead of saying anti-Bush stuff, why don’t you say any political stuff. It makes no difference if it’s Bush or Kerry. You try to cut the conversation short and go, “Bob’s a little partisan” or “Tell us how you really feel” or something of that nature. If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, which is entertain, then we’ll probably wind it up.

You mentioned Michael Moore before. Was there a feud between you two where he was banned from the show?

I never had a problem with Michael. I have no idea where all this came from. I remember a year and a half ago, he was on Bill Maher’s show, and he started to go off on me. Then I read that thing [in the Los Angeles Times ] — that he holds most of his contempt for Jay Leno — and I called up. “What is this? Michael’s welcome to come on the show. No one has ever been banned from our show. That’s not what we do.” I called him on the phone, and then he called me back. We talked about 45 minutes. I just didn’t understand what he was so mad at. He more or less said what it was. That, after he had done his speech to the academy, the next day I said, “You think President Bush is keeping an eye on Moore. Can we go to Moore’s house?” You saw a shack in the desert. And then a missile blew it up. Which to me was a joke about Bush. And then I said, “Gee, I think the president’s angry at Moore.” And it got a big laugh.

And then he said he’d had some problems. His house had been vandalized. He said to me that, in his paranoia, he sort of blamed me for the things that were happening to him. And then James Woods went into a diatribe against him. And so did Dennis Miller. And I called Moore’s agent and said he’s welcome to come on and respond. He didn’t want to come on. And then it just built and built. But I knew there weren’t any real problems.

So when he and I talked on the phone, I said, “Look, I enjoyed your film.” Then when he got here, we had a long talk, and it was fine. Moore said to me at one point, “I think your audience will boo me when I walk out.” And I said to the audience in the warm-up, “You know, Michael Moore is on the show tonight.” Boos. “You know this is America, and it’s free speech. If you don’t like it, please don’t boo. Please be quiet. Or if you want to applaud, you can applaud. But the guy made a movie. Just be polite.”

What happened when he walked out?

He got applause. I didn’t hear any boos at all. But the night before, when I announced he was coming, the audience booed.

What do you think about this already heated angry election?

You know, America is a football. Whoever controls the ball controls the game. Either you like the game or you don’t. I enjoy the game.

Let’s say a miracle happens and Kerry wins. Do you think his would be a funny administration?

I think there would be some funny things. I’m not sure what. We’ll make the most of it, whatever it is.

Nikki Finke is a columnist at the LA Weekly.