Jay Leno’s back in the driver’s seat in CNBC’s new ‘Jay Leno’s Garage’
He may be old enough for Medicare, but Jay Leno is still capable of shocking the young generation.
Last week, the former “Tonight Show” host was tooling down a residential street near the Burbank airport, jingling the bell in his 1909 Baker Electric automobile. The Baker looks exactly like a horseless carriage, an elegant black coach fit for Cinderella, assuming Cinderella were really into green-powered antiques and didn’t mind a top speed of 25 mph.
The motor is under the floorboard; steering comes from a crowbar-sized tiller. Leno waved at some grade-school kids, who stopped dead in their tracks and gawped, as if they’d just seen their neighborhood invaded by a rainbow-colored unicorn.
“When you drive old cars like this, it actually wakes people up,” the 65-year-old comic said. “People have their cellphone in their hand, and they’re texting and whatever else they’re doing. They see this, and it’s, ‘Gah!’ They’re startled ... They don’t even know what it is. It just looks so different from everything else on the road.”
Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno takes you inside his garage.
For an entertainer who has built his career on the comedy equivalent of comfort food, Leno isn’t usually associated with shock value. But his new weekly CNBC series, “Jay Leno’s Garage,” which debuts Wednesday, plugs into his famously endless passion for cars and motorcycles, so things could get a little intense. The program also marks a return to TV, after 18 months away, for a workaholic who still plays 250 comedy shows a year and can’t stand to take vacations. In fact, on Tuesday night he made a surprise and promotional visit to deliver the “The Tonight Show” monologue.
“Jay Leno’s Garage” is an extension of his YouTube series of the same title, which is filmed in Leno’s Burbank garage, which contains more than 300 vehicles spread across three warehouses, from Lamborghinis worth more than most family homes to steam-powered contraptions that look as if they were built for Disney fantasies. The channel has more than 1.4 million subscribers.
“After seven or eight years, it became the third biggest automotive show in the world on YouTube, right after ‘Top Gear,’” Leno said. “So I went around to Discovery, History, A&E, CNBC: ‘Anybody interested?’ I like CNBC because of the demographic involved. It’s kind of a high-end thing.”
“Garage” gives Leno a chance to indulge the geekdom that started as a teenager in Massachusetts, where he worked at a used-car dealership, performing “odometer recalibrations” — resetting the miles to make a car seem fresher than it was. “That’s what used car dealers did back then,” he said with a shrug.
The new show won’t stray far from Leno’s comic roots. One filmed segment, already up on YouTube, finds him disguised with a bald cap and long beard, pranking unsuspecting riders into thinking he’s an Uber driver.
There will also be celebrity visits, such as Laurence Fishburne, the actor of “CSI” and “black-ish” fame, who fell in love with motorcycles during production of his 1996 action movie “Fled.”
Like many, Fishburne came away a little awed by Leno’s knowledge. “I came to the realization that I really didn’t know much about driving,” the actor wrote in an email.
“We were thrilled to be able to partner with Jay,” CNBC Senior Vice President Jim Ackerman wrote in an email. "… He’s an enthusiast first, but he also looks at cars as both a consumer and an investor.”
Comedian and car aficionado Jay Leno pauses inside his Big Dog Garage, which houses an extensive, collection of historical cars and motorcycles, in Burbank, Calif.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Collectible cars are lined up in Jay Leno’s garage in Burbank, Calif.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
A Web series, “Jay Leno’s Garage,” is coming to CNBC, during which comedian and car aficionado Jay Leno will take viewers inside his Big Dog Garage in Burbank, Calif., and on various vehicular adventures.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Comedian and car aficionado Jay Leno is photographed inside his Big Dog Garage in Burbank, Calif.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
An orange Lamborghini Miura and a red Lamborghini Countach are two of the more than 140 cars in the extensive collection owned by comedian and car aficionado Jay Leno, inside his Big Dog Garage, in Burbank, Calif.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Jay Leno’s collection also includes 117 or so motorcycles.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Some of the memorabilia inside comedian and car aficionado Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage, which houses an extensive collection of cars and motorcycles in Burbank, Calif.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
A Hudson, left, and a Buick are two of the more than 140 cars in Jay Leno’s extensive collection housed as his Big Dog Garage in Burbank, Calif.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Car buff Jay Leno stops for a photo inside his Big Dog Garage in Burbank, Calif.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Vintage autos are lined up in Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage in Burbank, Calif.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Jay Leno checks out an entirely rebuilt 1914 Baker electric car, which is being retrofitted with a converted battery system from a Nissan Leaf.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Jay Leno looks out at his Big Dog Garage in Burbank, Calif.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
A weekly show about cars on a cable news network may seem like a comedown for a guy who for more than 20 years hosted NBC’s “Tonight Show,” the No. 1 program in late night. But Leno insists he doesn’t miss the spotlight.
“You only live in the time you live in,” he said. “I loved it when I did it. It was great. When you’re 42 and you’re talking to the 26-year-old supermodel, that’s sexy. When you’re 65, you’re the creepy old guy.
“At this point in my life, I shouldn’t have to know all of JayZ’s music, and if I do, I look like kind of an idiot. Why would I know all this hip-hop stuff? It doesn’t make any sense.”
He praised his successor on “The Tonight Show,” Jimmy Fallon, for keeping the program relevant to a digital generation.
“Jimmy’s doing a great job, and he brings elements to the show I never did, [like] the viral videos,” he said.
When it comes to cars, however, Leno makes clear that he keeps up with the times. Parked in one corner of his garage is a much more modern electric auto, a Tesla, that he calls “the greatest American car in a long time.” Leno uses it for everyday transportation.
“It’s made in America, it’s designed in America,” he said, “in an era when car companies are going out of business left and right. Since about 1910, every year, 2% of all companies have gone out of business. There were 350 manufacturers in America in 1950, and gradually, we’ve lost them all.”
The Tesla, he adds, “gives you 250 miles for $1.59, and it’s the fastest-accelerating vehicle that you can buy
now in terms of four-door sedans. It handles. There’s virtually no maintenance, because it’s electric. There are no fluids other than brake fluid…. It’s really quite brilliant, and I’m proud that it’s an American car — that the Germans didn’t come up with it first.”
But that doesn’t mean that Leno, car nut that he is, can’t appreciate the appeal of an electric auto that dates back to the administration of President William Howard Taft.
As he prepared to pull the Baker back into his lot, a driver in another car pulled alongside.
“I just saw you on TV last night!” the man said, pulling out his cellphone. “Could I take a picture of you? They’re not going to believe this. They’re going to say, ‘No, that’s a mannequin!’”
Leno chuckled, leaning his head out the window. “I am a mannequin!” he said, waving for the picture. “Have a good day, my friend.”
Leno likes the Baker a lot. “My wife and I take this out every year around Christmas to go look at the lights, because it’s the only one I have where the deer come right up to the window and look in,” he said. “There’s no smell, there’s nothing to scare them away.
“The great advantage of this car is you don’t have to feed it when you’re not using it.”
He paused and smiled.
“That was actually in the ad,” he said.
‘Jay Leno’s Garage’
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
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