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Why self-made millionaire Jay Leno still does 'about 210' live comedy shows a year

Jay Leno made a name for himself as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," a position he held for 22 years, until February 2014. It also made him a fortune: The gig reportedly paid as much as $30 million a year.

The 68-year-old shows no sign of slowing down: He's been hosting CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage," a series that explores Americans' obsession with cars, since 2015, and he launched a car-care product line in 2016.

On top of that, he still does "about 210" live comedy shows a year, he said on actor Dax Shepard's podcast, "Armchair Expert."

Why? "That's the only way you stay sharp," Leno told Shepard. "The stage is not a natural place to be and if you don't do it on a regular basis, it becomes unnatural. If you do it every night and a chair falls over or somebody yells or something — when it's unfamiliar to you, when something happens, it knocks you out of your rhythm."

From the time he entered the working world as a teenager, Leno has always had at least two ways to make money, he tells CNBC Make It: "I had two jobs because I realized that was the quickest way to become a millionaire."

His first two gigs were at McDonald's, where he sliced potatoes, and at a Ford dealership, where he worked as a the "lot boy," he says: "I would alternate between the two, so it was cars and hamburgers, which are actually still two of my passions."

A few years later, when he was trying to break into comedy, Leno supplemented his comedy gig earnings with money he made working at a car dealership. Even after landing "The Tonight Show," he continued doing live comedy shows on the side.

Tonight Show host Jay Leno during 'Headlines' segment on June 8, 1992 .
NBC | Getty Image
Tonight Show host Jay Leno during 'Headlines' segment on June 8, 1992 .

Part of his work ethic came from being dyslexic, he says, recalling, "My mother always said to me, since I was dyslexic, 'You're going to have to work twice as hard as the other kids to get the same thing.' I said, 'OK. That seems fair.' And I did work twice as hard to get the same thing."

When he was first starting out as a comedian and trying to land gigs in New York City, for example, he says, "I remember going to the comedy clubs and people would line up at 6 p.m. for auditions to get a spot at midnight. By 9 p.m. guys would go, 'I'm not waiting in line.' They would leave and then I would move on up."

Even after decades of success, Leno hasn't forgotten his mom's advice. "Never think you're better, or, for any reason, smarter," he tells Make It. "Just keep working and plugging away."

Don't miss: How Jay Leno went from earning minimum wage at McDonald's to making millions hosting 'The Tonight Show'

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