By Josef Federman
Jay Leno sees a small silver lining in the recent collapse of U.S.-backed Mideast peace talks: It should make his job just a little easier when he performs in front of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later this month.
"I guess any American that's not John Kerry is more than welcome there right now," Leno said.
The late night legend is heading to Israel on May 22 to host the awards ceremony of the $1 million Genesis Prize in Jerusalem. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is being honored as the first recipient of what has been dubbed "the Jewish Nobel Prize" for his years of public service and philanthropy.
Netanyahu will headline a list of more than 400 dignitaries in the audience that will include business leaders, Nobel laureates, philanthropists and entertainers. Grammy-winning pianist Evgeny Kissin will also perform.
Leno said he will run his jokes by the "appropriate people" ahead of time to avoid saying anything inappropriate. But he said Netanyahu and Bloomberg, one of the world's richest men, can expect to be the target of some of his zingers.
"I think everybody around the world appreciates self-deprecating humor, and I think you can do jokes about the prime minister, and Michael Bloomberg getting the award certainly," Leno said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "They're giving him $1 million. Wow. That's going to change his life."
For Leno, the trip will be his first to Israel. At a time when pro-Palestinian activists are urging entertainers to boycott the Jewish state, he said he didn't have "any problem" with his decision to perform. "It's a great honor. It's a great country. It's a great people," he said.
While said he sees both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said he considers himself to be "very pro-Jewish, very pro-Israeli." Leno himself is not Jewish.
"At some point in your life, you have to sort of take sides. I tend to side with the Jewish point of view on many things, especially issues like this one. I realize how important Israel is," he said.
Leno hosted NBC's late-night talk show "The Tonight Show" for more than two decades before retiring in February. He was replaced by former "Saturday Night Live" star Jimmy Fallon.
Leno said he keeps busy by performing his standup routine five nights a week and taking trips that would have been impossible during his Tonight Show years. He recently performed in China and will make stops in London and Rome during his upcoming trip to Israel.
Leno said Fallon is doing a "great job."
"You have to know when to step down on these jobs," he said. "After a while, when you're 64 and you're talking to the 25-year-old supermodel, you're the creepy guy now. So you have to know when."