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Jay Leno's next stop: Sarasota

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Jay Leno may say that his performance Friday night in Sarasota is just another of the roughly 150 stand-up comedy shows he does each year.

Maybe. But it's also his first gig as the "former" host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," which he has led for most of the last 22 years.

SLIDESHOW: Jay Leno's Top 10 "Tonight Show" moments

After 22 years, Jay Leno steps away as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" on Feb. 6, 2014, and then visits Sarasota for a stand-up show at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. (NBC PHOTO)

After 22 years, Jay Leno steps away as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" on Feb. 6, 2014, and then visits Sarasota for a stand-up show at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. (NBC PHOTO)

Hours after Thursday night's final broadcast, with guests Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks, Leno is flying to Sarasota for his first show in the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall since 1988. His sold-out appearance is part of the annual Van Wezel Foundation fund-raising gala.

He should feel right at home in a town filled with retirees — not that he has any interest in actually retiring at 63, even if he is passing "The Tonight Show" to Jimmy Fallon, who at 39, becomes only the sixth permanent host in the show's 60-year history.

And Leno has no plans to scale back his travel schedule. Now that he doesn't have to be at the office five days a week, the comedian who has been dubbed the busiest man in show business will have more time for stand-up gigs and other projects.

"Look, I was in Key Largo on Saturday and Vegas on Sunday," Leno said in a brief telephone interview form his Burbank office on Monday, four days before his final broadcast. "I'm on the road every week. It's not like I haven't been on the road for the last 25 years."

Leno leaves "The Tonight Show" at the top of the ratings game, just as it was when he inherited the show from Carson in 1992 after a contentious battle within NBC between Leno and David Letterman, who bolted for CBS.

He doesn't intend to host another late-night show, but said he is looking at "a lot of offers coming in" and he'll be doing a lot of club dates.

"It's flattering to be this age and get these offers," he said.

The noted car enthusiast, who has a couple of airplane hangars filled with a variety of classic cars, also will continue to write for Popular Mechanics, the Sunday Times of London, Octane magazine and another car magazine in Australia.

But he said he is looking forward to performing more stand-up shows, as he has done since he was a student at Emerson College in Boston in the early 1970s.

"When you do 'The Tonight Show' you do different jokes in the same place every night. On the road, you get to do the same jokes in different places every night," he said.

There's a big difference, he said, between his stand-up shows and the roughly 10-minute monologues he's done on more than 4,600 episodes of "The Tonight Show" (nearly 100 more than Carson).

Those monologues are filled with topical jokes that he described as "fairly disposable. And it's free. Jokes people buy a ticket for tend to be a little funnier," he said.

They become part of sets that he works on and molds over weeks, months and years. "You can't make a routine out of topical jokes. They get old pretty quickly. Even the bridge-closing jokes are getting old and that was only a couple of weeks ago."

The subject of his humor has changed over the years, as well.

"You naturally get older. You're not talking about dating, not talking about being broke and hitchhiking to a show. Comedy is like golf. If you try to stay in reasonably good shape, you can play into your 60s, or 70s or even 80s."

In his final week as host of "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno welcomes his successor, Jimmy Fallon as a guest. Leno wraps up a 22-year run as host and then travels to Sarasota for his first post-"Tonight Show" stand-up show. (NBC PHOTO)

In his final week as host of "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno welcomes his successor, Jimmy Fallon as a guest. Leno wraps up a 22-year run as host and then travels to Sarasota for his first post-"Tonight Show" stand-up show. (NBC PHOTO)

He sounded upbeat while preparing for his final week with such guests as Fallon, Betty White and Matthew McConaughey.

"I get that people are making something out of it," he said. "It's fun. Every night we have been doing a lot of the best of moments, but we're winding down."

Stepping away from the show does have its benefits.

"In some ways it's good. There are times when I think, 'Oh good, I don't have to see blank's new movie.' I always read the book and see the movie and I have to do a lot of that 'you were GREAT' kind of reaction even though I saw it and it was terrible."

Still there are plenty of things he's going to miss, besides the fun of sending millions of viewers to bed with smiles on their faces.

"How often in your life do future presidents and presidents stop by and talk to you for 20 minutes?" he said.

He sounds most proud of maintaining a sense of normalcy despite his tremendous success after years as a struggling comic, who eventually made his own "Tonight Show" debut in 1977.

"The real trick to enjoying show business is making it in show business and leading a normal life," he said. "If you lead a show biz life, you'll be unhappy and broke. I have the same girl for the 34 years (his wife, Mavis), and the same car and the same friends as in high school. I enjoy observing show business I don't live in it. After the show ends and I go out to eat, and they say your table is no longer available, it's no big deal."

Though he would be happy to continue for years more, Leno accepts the network's decision to shift to a younger host. He's had practice in sounding gracious about such changes. He went through this in 2009, when he gave up "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien, who lasted only seven months before Leno was called back to replace him.

Fallon takes over Feb. 17 at midnight following NBC's Olympic broadcast.

LAST SARASOTA PERFORMANCE

It has been 25 years since Jay Leno last performed in Sarasota, just a few months after he was named Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host on the “Tonight Show.”

Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, said it was a combination of luck and a coincidence of good timing that led to Sarasota hosting Leno’s first post-“Tonight Show” performance Friday.

Leno performs as part of the Van Wezel Foundation gala.

Leno was mentioned to Bensel by an agent as a potential gala star to follow past years with Natalie Cole, Jerry Seinfeld and Sheryl Crow. Booking Leno required Bensel to help put together a string of performances at other halls in Florida.

“That was no problem,” said Bensel, and then the agent asked, “‘How would you like to be the first after ‘The Tonight Show?’ That just makes this night extra special.”

"TONIGHT SHOW" HOSTS
Steve Allen, Sept. 1954-Jan. 1957
Jack Paar, July 1957-Sept. 1962
Johnny Carson, Oct. 1962-May 1992
Jay Leno, May 1992-May 2009
Conan O'Brien, June 2009-Jan. 2010
Jay Leno, March 2010-Feb. 6, 2014
Jimmy Fallon, Begins Feb. 17

Last modified: February 10, 2014
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