Jay Leno on How to Be a Good Host

 Paul Drinkwater / NBC / Getty Images

Jay Leno served as the host of The Tonight Show for more than 20 years and became one of America’s most recognized faces. But he wasn’t always on a first-name basis with the country; he had to win over his massive audience. We asked Jay how he charms people and he gave us a glimpse into his world:

“They did an experiment where a guy walked down a New York street and screamed for help, and nobody did anything. Then another guy walked down the street, smiling and saying hello, and then screamed for help, and people ran to help him out. When I walk into a room, I work it before I yell help. I try to see who’s the most approachable important person, and I go right up and give him a joke. He’ll give you a friendly connection to everyone else.

I always try to get people on my side with the least obvious joke. If there’s a hot woman everybody’s focused on, I give her a dig that has nothing to do with her looks. Then everybody can see you’re not out to hurt anybody’s feelings. I do a lot of stuff with the military. The first thing I do is say thanks for their sacrifice. It’s not a ploy; it’s sincere. Then you hit them with a joke about getting shot at for $400 a month. You always want to give the respect before you take it away. People appreciate that.

There’s a political joke I tell when I’m talking to groups outside the traditional show audience. A local politician is asked to speak at his party’s convention of 50,000 people. At nine o’clock the president goes on to a huge ovation. At 9:45 the vice president gets the same response. Finally it’s 2 am and the place is empty except for one guy about three rows back. The politician sees the guy and thinks, ‘That guy’s been sitting there all night. I’m gonna give him the same speech I would have if this room was full.’ So he gives a rousing 45-minute speech, then leaves the podium and walks over to the guy and asks, ‘I’m curious. Why did you wait all this time just to hear me speak?’ And the guy says, ‘I’m scheduled to talk next!’

I love that one because it always reminds you that most people don’t give a damn what the hell you’re talking about.”