Jay Leno's Life From Childhood To Talk Show Star

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

The following article includes brief mentions of child abuse allegations and anti-Asian racism.

Jay Leno might be known for his years on late-night TV and his expensive car collection nowadays, but before he found his way into comedy, the TV host was just a kid working in a drive-through. "All through high school, I worked at McDonald's," Leno wrote in his 2005 children's book "How to Be the Funniest Kid in the Whole Wide World (or Just in Your Class)." He also explained that the fast-food company was actually his first taste of show business. "McDonald's put on a regional talent show," he recalled, adding that he wrote up a comedy routine with another employee. They won the $150 prize, and the competition became Leno's first moment in the spotlight, proving to him that he could actually make a living by being funny.

He returned to his first workplace years later for "60 Minutes" and put the old uniform on, just to relive those days in McDonald's. "You know, it's like riding a bike, really. You never really forget," Leno observed, flipping burgers and passing out fries to real customers. "Times are rough," he joked to one woman in the drive-through. "I'm not on 'The Tonight Show' anymore, I had to come back here." 

Keep reading to find out more about the former late-night host and how Jay Leno became a household name.

Jay Leno turned down his first movie role

Although Jay Leno got his first movie role in 1977's "Silver Bears," he cynically turned down the opportunity when it was first offered to him. 

"How I got the role still amazes me," the comedian wrote in his 1996 autobiography "Leading with My Chin," recalling that he had just been hanging out at The Comedy Store when a stranger approached him. "You have a good face for a movie. Would you like to be in a movie?" the guy asked, offering to fly him out to Switzerland. Assuming that the man thought he was a male sex worker and wasn't making an actual showbiz offer, Leno threw his number away. The next time they met, however, this mysterious stranger actually gave him the phone number of a legitimate production office.

"Suddenly, I realized that he might be on the level," Leno recalled. Once he rang, the star realized that the man was director Ivan Passer. "Like an idiot, I'd been blowing off a real director!" Leno explained. "He'd seen my act and thought I was right for the movie. Luckily, he still wanted me." Only one week later, the director's promise came true, and Leno was flying to Switzerland, where he would act opposite the likes of Michael Caine, Cybill Shepherd, Louis Jourdan, Martin Balsam, Tony Massia, and Tommy Smothers.

He's known for his car collection

As one of the biggest celeb car enthusiasts in the world, Jay Leno has well over 300 classic vehicles and even had his own show about cars, aptly called "Jay Leno's Garage." As the comedian told the Daily Mail, his obsession started when he was a teenager and needed a car in order to get some alone time with girls. "In our day you had to drive to a girl's house, somehow convince them to take their clothes off when their parents weren't there," Leno explained, adding that young people nowadays have iPhones and computers, so they wouldn't understand. "But I lived in a rural area, uptown was seven miles. ... So the car, the motorcycle, any mode of transport like that, that was the ultimate freedom. You could go out." 

His first vehicle as a teenager in Massachusetts was a 1934 Ford, and he worked at a Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and Mercedes-Benz dealer during college. Now that he's a star, Leno's collection has grown to include 189 cars and 168 motorcycles, as of 2020, like a steam-powered racing car from 1906 and a vintage vehicle made from a tank that are worth millions of dollars. He's also owned early versions of electric cars, which is perhaps why he's collaborated with Elon Musk and is a famous Tesla owner

"I've owned three alternative energy cars for years," Leno wrote for Popular Mechanics in 2007. "... Each one is a rolling manifestation of a brilliant idea. Sadly, they were all way ahead of their time and all three makes failed."

Jay Leno feuded with David Letterman

Although Jay Leno got his start appearing on talk shows like "Late Night with David Letterman," the former friends became rivals when Leno was picked to replace Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" rather than David Letterman in 1992. The feud even inspired a book and a TV movie.

In a CNN docuseries from 2021, it was revealed that most people assumed Letterman would get the job, per People. "Dave is the obvious choice, he has sat at that desk, he's been a loyal soldier ... what more do you need?" Letterman's executive producer at the time, Rob Burnett, reflected in "The Story of Late Night." But Leno had signed a secret deal with NBC that ensured him the role. "Dealing with Dave had become bothersome and draining, and he could be unnecessarily rude to network people," former NBC Vice President Rick Ludwin claimed. "... So did that factor into my decision as to going with Jay Leno over Dave Letterman? You bet it did."

"The idea that there was a huge rift between me and Dave — yeah, of course there was," Leno later wrote in The Hollywood Reporter. "I think Dave felt really sad he didn't get 'The Tonight Show.'" He insisted that their competitive spirit meant they appreciated each other's work, however. "Whether it's two sports teams, or two boxers, you can trash talk each other, but it doesn't mean you don't respect each other," Leno added, emphasizing that it's important to have a thick skin in the comedy world. "... I think there was a mutual admiration."

He legally couldn't joke about Michael Jackson

When every other late-night host was making Michael Jackson jokes during the singer's 2005 child molestation trial, Jay Leno wasn't allowed. As The Guardian reported, the King of Pop's legal team had called on Leno to discuss his experiences with Jackson's 13-year-old accuser, who had left Leno allegedly scripted voice messages and spoken to him over the phone in 2000. 

"I wasn't asked for money nor did I send any," Leno clarified in his testimony, on the same day that Chris Tucker took the stand, though the TV host did admit that he found the child's compliments slightly strange: "The voice mails I got were, 'Oh, I'm a big fan, you're the greatest' — overly effusive for a 12-year-old," he explained. "For a comedian in his 50s? I'm not Batman. It seemed a bit unusual, you know what I mean?" Leno concluded that the boy just had a stilted manner of speaking, however.

Since he was testifying for Jackson's defense, Leno legally couldn't talk about it on his show — but the comic got around that clause by bringing on other comedians like Roseanne Barr and Brad Garrett to tell jokes for him. As soon as his gag order was over, he returned to the topic with his own monologue. "OK, you know the worst part about testifying, I had to follow the chimp. The witness chair was a mess," Leno quipped (via Today), adding, "I was called by the defense. Apparently they've never seen this program."

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Jay Leno's staff got fired in the writers' strike

Jay Leno made some enemies during the 2007-2008 writers' strikes when his entire staff on "The Tonight Show" was fired by NBC. As Reuters reported, Leno had apparently previously reassured them that they would all be fine in a mass speaker phone call. 

"There were 80 of us," one staffer recalled. "He told us not to panic." The host supposedly told his employees that he would look after them: "I can't get into details, but nobody will miss a car payment or lose their house. We're family." While the staffer added that they probably should have already been searching for new work, they trusted Leno. "When the most powerful man in TV tells you to relax, then you relax," another writer complained, accusing the star of giving out underwhelming bonuses, as well. "He could've at least covered us through Christmas. That would have been nice." Meanwhile, Leno's seemingly flippant approach to the strike didn't exactly endear him to his staff. "He even joked that because of the writers' strike, he had more time to work on his car collection," one staffer claimed. 

Leno was particularly unpopular at the time compared to TV hosts like Conan O'Brien, who paid the salaries of almost 80 production staff members out of his own pocket, per Variety. Leno was also brought in front of the Writers Guild of America in 2009 over accusations that he had violated the guild's guidelines by stating on TV that he had written his own monologues amid the strike, according to the Los Angeles Times.

He had an infamous dispute with Conan O'Brien

The feud between Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno became headline news in 2010 after O'Brien replaced him as host of "The Tonight Show." Quick recap: With "The Jay Leno Show" as its new lead-in, the show's ratings faltered, and NBC executives ultimately decided to offer the 11:35 pm gig back to Leno, who was widely criticized for accepting it. O'Brien's show was then pushed back to the early morning, so he left NBC

"He went and took that show back and I think in a similar situation, if roles had been reversed ... I wouldn't have done that," O'Brien told "60 Minutes" at the time, explaining that Leno had essentially "surrendered 'The Tonight Show' and handed it over to somebody publicly and wished them well and then ... six months later."

In a July 2022 interview on the "Club Random with Bill Maher" podcast, Leno insisted that he never plotted to tank O'Brien's version of "The Tonight Show." "That doesn't work," Leno claimed, denying that there was any sabotage. "It doesn't work that way. You try and do the best you can, and it didn't work." He also spoke about why he stayed with NBC rather than joining another network. "Sometimes the czar you have is better than the one you're going to. ... I just figured let's just play this out and see what happens. This all happened fairly quickly."

Jay Leno had to apologize for racist jokes

Jay Leno has a long history of using racist stereotypes about Asian communities in his stand-up, which he finally acknowledged in 2021 after activists spent 14 years asking him to apologize.

After Gabrielle Union was fired from "America's Got Talent" in 2019, for example, she reflected on a racist joke Leno had made about Korean restaurants serving dog meat while he was a guest judge. "I've always held him in high regard, but I was not prepared for his joke," Union recalled to Variety, elaborating on her toxic workplace allegations against the show. "I gasped. I froze." "AGT" reportedly failed to act at the time, but Union's anecdote later sparked a backlash against Leno, as anti-Asian racism increased and became topical amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"At the time I did those jokes, I genuinely thought them to be harmless," Leno said in a 2021 Zoom call with Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (via NBC News). "I was making fun of our enemy North Korea, and like most jokes, there was a ring of truth to them." He also made it clear that he hadn't been forced to apologize for his comments. "I do not consider this particular case to be another example of cancel culture but a legitimate wrong that was done on my part," Leno said, thanking MANAA for welcoming his apology. "I hope that the Asian American community will be able to accept it as well, and I hope I can live up to their expectations in the future."

He's been married for over 40 years

Jay Leno's love story with Mavis Leno began in The Comedy Store in 1976. "The first time I went, they sat us front row center — that means you're this far from the comic. And there was Jay," she told the Los Angeles Times in 2014, noting that he recognized her later that night. "... He said, 'Are you that girl in front?' And I said, 'Yes, that was me.'" 

After months of dating, the comedian proposed by explaining that his insurance policy would also cover her if they were married. "Not the most romantic. Mavis didn't even get an engagement ring," Jay observed, although he did later buy her a diamond ring. The two tied the knot in 1980, but for her part, Mavis never had plans to get married before meeting her future famous husband, as she told People in 1987. "But with Jay," she explained, "I began to realize that this was the first time I was ever with someone where I had a perfect, calm sense of having arrived at my destination."

Over the years, Mavis has become known for her philanthropy and commitment to women's issues around the world. As part of the Feminist Majority Foundation's board of directors, she has particularly fought on behalf of women in Afghanistan. "I always tell guys when they meet a woman, 'Marry your conscience,'" Jay told People in 2019. "'Marry someone who's the person you wish you could be, and it works out okay.'"

Jay Leno's recovering from serious burns following a car fire

In November 2022, one of Jay Leno's beloved cars burst into flames in his garage, leaving him hospitalized. "I got some serious burns from a gasoline fire. I am OK," the comedian announced in a statement after the news broke, per Variety. "Just need a week or two to get back on my feet."

Just prior to the incident making headlines, the medical emergency left the TV host unable to perform at a Los Angeles conference that was scheduled for November 13, as People reported. Leno, who is notorious for his tireless work ethic, let the venue know that he couldn't come due to his health. "All we know is that he is alive, so our prayers go out to him and his family tonight," the organizers stated in part.

A friend and longtime employee, George Swift, later told Access that Leno had been working on repairs for a steam car when the fire happened. "Steam is made by gas, and he got sprayed with some gas, and it ignited," he explained, saying that the comic had called him shortly after the incident. Swift also reassured fans that Leno never lost consciousness and was being cared for at a burn center. "He's a tough guy, he's going to be fine," Swift added. "It's nothing life-threatening. He's in great spirits, but you know, it's going to take a while."