Jay Leno performs in Beaver Creek Wednesday | VailDaily.com

Jay Leno performs in Beaver Creek Wednesday

Brenda Himelfarb
Special to the Daily
Comedian and popular late night host Jay Leno visits the Vilar Center Wednesday night.
Special to the Daily |

If you go ...

What: Jay Leno.

Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center, Beaver Creek.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Cost: $195 or $225 seats available.

More information: Visit www.vilarpac.org.

In the winter of 1992, Jay Leno performed at Dobson Ice Arena — Vail’s performing arts center back in the day. It was part of a comedy tour in which Leno spent time with local NBC affiliates in the months leading up to his taking over “The Tonight Show” for Johnny Carson on May 25, 1992. And for 23 years he came into our living room with his intelligent monologues and outrageous headline bits before retiring to become legend like previous “Tonight Show” hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Carson.

On Wednesday, Leno returns to the valley with an appearance at the Vilar Performing Arts Center, delivering his unique brand of stand-up-comedy, his first love — something he continued doing a few times a week at comedy clubs during his entire run of “The Tonight Show.”

“I was on the road two or three days a week when I was doing ‘The Tonight Show,’” Leno said. “Now I get more time. Before, whatever I was doing, I had to run home and write 14 minutes of jokes everyday. I don’t have to do that any more. I mean, I still try to write jokes everyday, but I don’t have that pressure, that schedule. It’s kind of fun.”

‘EVERYTHING COMES TO AN END’

A changing of the guard will be happening in the world of talk-show hosts with David Letterman and Jon Stewart recently announcing their plans to call it a day.

“You know, everything comes to an end,” Leno said. “We all started around the same time, so it sort of makes sense that we all end about the same time.

“You have sort of a YouTube generation now. Jimmy (Fallon) brings a set of skills that I didn’t have. He does music parodies, music videos. My thing was the monologue. You know, back in the day, before you had the Internet and all that stuff, people watched the news and then watched me or Letterman or whomever, make fun of the news at 11:30. But now, you can get that information at anytime, so it’s not like people have to stay up late to watch something. They can just go to the Internet and wait for the viral video to come out and watch that.”

‘KEEP YOUR EYES AND EARS OPEN’

Leno has not taken time to decompress since retiring. He’s on a roll and has an uncanny ability to take what one might consider mundane and turn it into a hilarious routine.

“There’s no real process to writing jokes,” he said. “You just try to keep your eyes and ears open to things that happen around you. That’s really the trick, because a lot of time people miss things. I think the thing to being a comedian is being able to pick up situations that other people miss.

“For instance, the other day I went to the store to buy cereal. And I asked the kid who worked there — he was 19 or 20 — if he had Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes. And he said, ‘No, we don’t sell them anymore ‘cause they’re bad for kids ‘cause they have too much sugar in them. And I said, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll go to another food market.’ So then he says, ‘We have the regular Frosted Flakes if you want those.’ And I look at the box and say, ‘How do you think they got frosted? Do you think they leave them outside in the winter?’ ‘Well, the others have sugar,’ he says.

“That was just hilarious to me! It was a classic case of marketing. Sugar’s a bad word, so they just don’t put in on the package anymore. He really thought that he was selling a healthy version of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes, without the sugar, just the frosting. I mean, there’s a joke there somewhere. You know, those kinds of things happen and it’s just a matter of paying attention.”

‘TIME TO HONE A JOKE’

When Leno hosted “The Tonight Show” he hoped that if something outlandish took place, say, on a Monday afternoon, he would be the first person out there with a joke about it on Monday night. Being on the road gives him time to hone a joke and perform it three or four times before he feels it’s right.

“For ‘The Tonight Show,’” you just say it once. That’s it,” Leno said. “You have an idea of what you’re going to talk about. In stand-up, if I have a joke that I did on Monday, I can change it Tuesday. I can change it Wednesday so that by the time the next weekend comes, instead of having a 30-second joke, I have a one- or two-minute piece. The material has had time to breathe a little bit.”

Those who follow Leno know that he is a car guy. He owns hundreds of vehicles — cars and motorcycles — and has a website called Jay Leno’s Garage, which will soon be the subject of a new show on CNBC. But it really is the ability to write jokes, to find humor in everyday life and to perform that makes his soul sing.

There are those who weren’t happy with Leno’s departure from “The Tonight Show.”

“People will say to me, ‘I like what you did better,’ whatever that might be,” Leno said. “I’m glad I was able to do the show for 23 years. It was a lot of fun. It was No. 1 when I got it and I was glad I could hand it over to Jimmy being No. 1. And I think he’ll be thrilled that when he hands it over to the next guy it will be No. 1 for him also.”