‘I like Jews, but Italian food is better’

Comedian Jay Leno talks to the ‘Post’ about Israel’s PR struggles, his love of the Jewish people and the comedic fodder inherent in our politics.

Jay Leno talks to Jpost
It’s easy to dismiss the Hollywood elite as out of touch, fake and living in a bubble. But despite a career spanning over three decades, Jay Leno is none of these things. When you talk to Leno, what you see is what you get.
Case in point – the comedian’s response when asked why the Boston native has chosen to come to Israel not just once, but twice, to host the Genesis Prize award ceremony: “I just like Jews,” he chuckles in response. “Jewish people have always been very kind to me and nice to me. And it just seems to make sense. I’m Italian, so the sense of family is pretty much the same.
“The food is better on the Italian side, I have to say. Whenever I go to an Italian deli there’s tomatoes and lasagna and meatballs, and I go into a Jewish deli and it’s a fish in a case,” the former Tonight Show host cracks. “Can you dress it up a little bit?? Put some tomatoes around it? Why just have a fish in a case?”
The comedian spoke to The Jerusalem Post at the King David Hotel on Thursday morning before emceeing that night’s Genesis Prize Award Ceremony honoring actor Michael Douglas for promoting a more inclusive Judaism.
Leno acknowledged that just visiting Israel could be interpreted as a political statement (although he doesn’t view it as such) and that there are some who encouraged him not to come “I don’t get these boycotters.
I don’t think they quite understand the whole situation. To me, if you want to understand a place you go there and you look the people in the eye and you get a feeling for it. Either it feels good, or it doesn’t feel good. And that’s what works for me,” he says.
Much of the criticism of Israel is misplaced or comes from a sense of not fully understanding the situation, Leno asserts.
“It’s an odd situation that you have Israel here surrounded by a gazillion people here, and somehow they’re the underdogs,” he says. “I think Israel is so efficient in defending itself and so good at it, that to the rest of the world it looks like bullying. It’s mystifying.”
The foreign media is partly responsible for this state of affairs, he opines: “We live in an era of sensationalism, the fact that they never report that rockets are being fired from a school or hospital, just rockets coming toward a school or a hospital.”
To combat its bad international image, it would behoove Israel to show its humanitarian efforts abroad, he argues.
“To me, the most effective thing when I see a flood or some natural disaster – and they don’t cover this as much in the US press – I always see Israeli doctors going in there and doing things. And I go, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’
“You want to make yourselves as strong and defensible as possible, but for a lot of people, it’s been flipped around the other way. They don’t realize how small Israel is compared to the rest of the world,” he argues, saying people routinely refuse to believe him when he tells them how small Israel is.
As an outsider, Leno is fascinated by Israel’s political process where political parties abound and the road to forming a coalition is both complex and absurd.
“I always considered Israel as not only the only democracy in the Middle East, I think it’s the purest, because every Israeli voter seems to have his own political party. I mean, you guys have more parties than that [former Italian prime minister Silvio] Berlusconi guy.
I mean, it always makes me laugh when I see somebody has one-10th of 1 percent of a vote – and he’s leading!” he said, chuckling in disbelief.
The line between making a crowd laugh and cringe is a fine one, though and Leno navigates it carefully. “My job is this odd sort of thing now where comedians are supposed to have controversy first and laughs second,” he explains.
“To me, you always put the joke first. If there’s a bit of controversy, that’s okay, but your job is to entertain and get laughs. That’s me. I see myself as a comedian and not a political commentator,” he says.
It is the optimism of Israel despite its challenges that has impressed Leno the most during his visits.
“I just like the enthusiasm here... it’s nice to see. It’s infectious. It’s encouraging,” he says. “If you could be optimistic with people throwing rockets at you, God bless you. That’s impressive.”