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June 20, 2016

Moving On

Jay Leno's follow up to The Tonight Show is as organic as it is surprising.

Sarah Hirsch
  • CNBC
  • CNBC
  • CNBC
  • CNBC
  • CNBC

“You can’t make lightening strike twice,” says Jay Leno, who is explaining his mindset when it came to finding a project to follow-up his 21 years on The Tonight Show.

Fans would often ask the former late night host what he had planned for the future. The biggest question being: Would he host another talk show?

But what Leno did instead grew organically from his NBC.com web series Jay Leno’s Garage. The collection of online videos — which continues to get new uploads every week on YouTube — features profiles on cars and motorcycles, as well as technically-detailed videos for true gear heads.

By August of 2014, the web series morphed into a CNBC television special, and by the following year, that special had become a weekly prime time series of the same name. What had originally seemed like a niche show was suddenly much broader. The fresh format saw Leno doing what he does best: being funny, conducting interviews and talking about cars.

Each episode of the season — which premiered June 15 and airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on CNBC — is themed: California car culture, American muscle cars, and the cars of tomorrow have been just a few of the topics covered in past episodes.

Along with cars and comedy, the series interweaves history, and interviews with auto experts, regular folks and celebrities alike — guests have included Tim Allen, Mario Andretti and Francis Ford Coppola.

“I wasn’t happy with a lot of the car shows on TV,” Leno says. “A lot of them were just guys with tattoos folding their arms and yelling at each other. Or throwing tools, or having some sort of fight.

“I wanted to make [a show] about the passion, about the spirit. The biggest compliment I get is from the wives who say, ‘I don’t like to watch car shows with my husband, but I enjoy your show.’ I wanted to open it up a bit and make it as much about the people as the cars.”

Leno has succeeded in doing just that. He shares a story featured on an upcoming episode, about a 94-year-old woman who called him up and offered to sell him her 1951 Hudson Hornet. The woman and her late husband had bought their Hornet new in ‘51 and had driven it cross-country — from New Jersey to California.

The car was now unused, covered in a thick coating of dust, and had more than 250,000 miles on its odometer. But the woman won Leno over in the end, so he bought the car and took it back to his garage for restoration. Two years later, the project completed, Leno called the then 96-year-old and asked her if she’d like to go for a ride in the spruced-up vehicle.

“‘Oh, oh my god! I’ve got to get my hair done, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. Let me call the kids!’” Leno says, recounting her reaction. “Well, the ‘kids’ are 70 and 72,” he says, laughing.

“So I drive over there, and she comes out, sees the car, and she starts to get teary-eyed. The car hasn’t looked like this since the day they got it. It’s the only car they ever had.

So I say, ‘Come on, let’s go for a ride.’ So she gets in the front and the two ‘kids’ get in the back. And we go down the street and she’s telling us about the drive from New Jersey, Route 66 and all the other things, coming across America.

“Meanwhile, the two ‘kids’ — 70 and 72 — start poking each other in the backseat. And she turns around and just starts slapping the crap out of them. ‘You two stop that! Stop that!’ And the three of them are just laughing their heads off, having the time of their lives, recreating this trip across the country, in the same car.

“It was so much fun, to see this old lady get so emotional, and become so happy in that car.”

Leno, who grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, says his love of cars came before comedy. A career in show business didn’t seem like a possibility at the time.

And, in fact, it proved to be quite the struggle when he did begin to pursue it — shortly after moving to Los Angeles, Leno was arrested twice for vagrancy on Hollywood Boulevard. (His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is now less than a block away from where the arrests occurred.)

But growing up in a rural area roughly 30 miles outside of Boston did lend itself to situations where the future comedian would have to fix a car engine or tinker with a lawnmower.

Further explaining his first love, Leno says, “Show business is so subjective. Some people think you’re funny, other people think you suck. Someone could look me in the eye and go, ‘That wasn’t funny.’ But when you take something that’s broken and you fix it, no one can say it’s not running.”

The topic of cars also comes more easily to Leno than some of the other subjects he had to cover on The Tonight Show.

It’s a hobby he feels passionately about and famously indulges in — his garage in Burbank boasts more than 300 vehicles. (And for the record, he doesn’t have a favorite, but he particularly likes “any vehicle that was ahead of its time in its time, or any vehicle that was a noble failure.”)

“When I was doing The Tonight Show, we would have musical guests or athletes I really didn’t know a lot about. So I’d spend time studying and reading stats and what not,” Leno says. “Whereas, this is a subject I already know.”

Viewers can look forward to more of the comic’s famous friends and acquaintances stopping by the garage this season — some more unpredictable than others.

Caitlyn and Kendall Jenner will make an appearance, as will Nick Cannon, and a repeat visit from Allen. But perhaps most surprising for audiences will be a drag race with Corvettes between Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“And they really raced,” Leno attests. “These two guys were trash-talking each other and burning rubber. The secret service was going crazy because Powell and Biden looked like they were going to crash into each other!”

It’s easy to see why Leno is so enthusiastic. With a series about his foremost passion to work on, and a stable full of cars to choose from, life for Leno is a far cry from when he sat in the back of a cop car, cracking jokes for his arresting officers.

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