PURE LENO : On the Road With America’s Hardest-Working Comedian
“What’s the delay?” Jay Leno asked his driver speculatively, peering out the back window of the car at the lines of people walking along either side, faster than the car itself. “Does this happen a lot?” The black limousine inched in heavy traffic along the narrow two-lane road leading to the North Tonawanda Melody Fair, where Leno was to appear for a one-night concert, one of 270 hit-and-run performances he plays all over the country each year.
He had just flown up from Atlanta, where he had been working an auto show. Two days before that he had played a date in Indianapolis. Two days before that he was at the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach to break in material for the following night’s “Tonight Show,” where he enjoys the double-oxymoronic title of “permanent guest host,” a once-a-week shot taped at 5:30 p.m. that he views self-critically when it airs at 11:30. Most of the time, that means he’s in bed by 2 a.m. and up by 5 to catch the first flight east out of LAX.
Leno’s killer schedule is a source of amazement to everyone who knows and works with him, and indeed to people who know him only by reputation. At the Comedy Convention in Las Vegas last July, a young comedian rose at a seminar to complain about the grind of having to play the road so much. “Jay Leno does it all the time,” he was told by a panelist. “Yeah, but that’s him ,” replied the comic, plaintively. Leno has heard the wondrous comment so many times that he blinks it off with a lizard-like complacency. “Remember the days when people went to work in the dark and came home in the dark?”
Besides the growing command of his medium and the extraordinary visibility and stature gained through “The Tonight Show,” doubtless one of the reasons for his success is simply this: He works . To be celebrated for that could be considered an insult to the legions of jazz, blues and country musicians measuring the distance between gigs against a single tank of gas, or bus ‘n’ truck theatrical companies traveling the country, or struggling comics playing the comedy-club circuit, or even older comedians like Bob Hope and Red Skelton who are out there for at least half a year. Not to mention all the businessmen, politicians, truckers, salesmen, airline people and corporate types who lend so much to the sociological view of America as a mobile society.
But the truth remains that most people do stay put. That Leno comes to them live from mythic Hollywood must be a source of one deeper and unspoken form of affection. Another is that his perpetual odyssey defies the conventional wisdom that equates success with moneyed indolence, with jet-setting to sleek parties and languishing poolside at homes around the world in a fabulous dreamlike continuum of pleasure and high living. Leno refutes the notion that the Good Life is framed by entertainment values, an idea so prevalent now that when a professional athlete actually plays hard for his salary, TV commentators will comment on his “work ethic.” At 39, Leno is a throwback to an older American ideal of people who believed they were building a country.
Tonawanda is about 12 miles outside of Buffalo in Upstate New York. The limo ride, which began at the Ramada Renaissance Inn outside the Buffalo airport, had been a smooth one until it approached the theater, where traffic was backing up. The lines of theatergoers walking along the road scuffed up a cloud of dust highlighted by the late sun--the scene nearly resembled documentary footage of some war-torn land whose urban citizenry was fleeing to the countryside, or a solemn pilgrimage.
To anyone who peered searchingly at the car, Leno would roll down the window, wave and say, “Hey, how ya doin’?” After a while, he asked the driver anxiously, “Do you think we’ll be on time? Well, they can’t start without me, can they? Anyway, there’s an opening act. I hope he made it through this.”
The theater entrance swung into view and the driver turned toward the security gate outside the artist’s entrance. “Security guys are the ones who know least about what’s goin’ on,” Leno said, poised to jump out of the car. “At NBC there was a guy who stopped me and said, ‘Who’re you?’ ‘Jay Leno,’ I said. ‘I’m hostin’ “The Tonight Show.” ’ ‘Right,’ the guy says. ‘ Johnny Carson hosts “The Tonight Show.” ’ ‘I’m subbing for him.’ ‘Right. So what’s your name?’ The guy picks up the phone and says, ‘I have a Jim Reynolds here who says he’s hosting “The Tonight Show.” ’ ‘It’s not Jim Reynolds. It’s Jay Leno. Jay! ‘ Jeez.”
Leno fondly catalogues these minor indignities, not only because they’re funny in retrospect, but also because they act as a corrective to the whirl of attention he’s been getting as America’s hottest stand-up comedian and, of course, as the Anointed One, the heir-apparent to Johnny Carson.
Not only does Leno understand the cyclical nature of success, but against its intoxicants he holds a heavy memory of years of ignominious struggle in venues like the Kit Kat Klub, a Boston strip joint whose owner told him, “Get the hell outta here!” after Leno asked for his pay. There was the small-time impresario who asked him if he could go on as a wrestler. There was the circus midway, where he performed between freak show tents, one of a number of impossible gigs where people would shout at him: “You a comedian? Well you ain’t funny.”
There was that New Jersy hustler who got hold of a truckload of anal-deodorant suppositories and hired Leno to act as a sales manager; when a roomful of salesmen booed the product, he reviled them with “and to show you how much you know, this isn’t even a sales manager. This is Jay Leno, professional comedian! “ (Leno loves this one).
When he first worked the Comedy Store on the Strip, he sometimes slept on the club’s back stairway. You never know when the struggling ego is about to hit another trap. Some time after he began substituting for Carson, a Midwestern radio announcer prefaced an interview by saying, “We’re talking to Jay Leno, who claims to have hosted ‘The Tonight Show.’ ”
“Hi, gang!” Leno called to the crowd of autograph seekers at the stage entrance, who cheered him on sight and gathered around. As he began signing programs, the crowd drew back as a man brought out a chimpanzee in a white judo suit to perform karate moves. The chimp had an ancient face and performed with a startling dutiful aggressiveness before leaping in his trainer’s arms and plunging his wizened hand into a bag of Doritos. The crowd laughed at this bit of comic precocity and Leno moved on to his trailer, where fruit and cheeses were laid out on a table and there were soft drinks in the refrigerator (Leno doesn’t permit alcohol on the premises when he performs).
He had been polite but aloof toward the chimp’s antics. “People are always trying to bring animals to me to get on ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” he said, settling into an easy chair. “What’s the big deal? ‘Look! He’s doing something human.’ I like it when they just do animal things, like ‘hunt’ and ‘point.’ ” A local NBC camera crew came in to do a spot interview and shoot a promo. One reporter asked him, “Are you surprised by what people laugh at?” “People laugh at any form of hypocrisy,” Leno replied, facing the sudden glare of the camera’s lights.
“What about Dan Quayle?” the reporter asked.
“You never change anybody’s opinions with jokes,” Leno answered. “You just reinforce what they’re thinking anyway. I don’t tell many Dan Quayle jokes, like ‘For the 20th anniversary of the moon walk, he sent Michael Jackson a telegram.’ ”
“You seem to know yourself, but are uncomfortable about celebrity,” the reporter said.
“Fred Allen once said about TV, ‘It’s having people entertain in your home by people you wouldn’t have in your home.’ ”
The crew asked him to do a couple of promo spots. Peering into the camera, he said, “This is Jay Leno. I live in California and have a satellite dish just so I can watch the best news team in the country, Don and Allison. It comes on before ‘The Tonight Show.’ ” And “Hello, this is Jay Leno. Wanna impress that special someone? Stay up for ‘The Tonight Show.’ It’s a lot safer than sex and lasts a lot longer.”
A cluster of envelopes, pictures, notes and other missives calling for Leno’s attention were gathered on a table near the door. There was a sweat shirt and cap embossed with the logo of the American Cancer Society, the local chapter of which Leno had offered support. A Leno 8 x 10 glossy had a note attached: “Please autograph this picture for Kathy.” Another camera crew came in, offering its deferential hello, and set up. “We’d like to do three or four minutes,” the reporter said. “Just don’t do a cable special,” Leno quipped.
The intermission after the opening act was coming to an end. An officious-looking woman in a custodial outfit, with a key-ring dangling from her belt, came back to announce, “Five minutes, Jay.” Leno changed into a pair of slacks and a double-breasted jacket and walked through an impromptu corridor of security guards to the edge of the theater, where he waited through his introduction in the dark.
The Tonawanda Music Fair is a theater in the round that seats 3,400 (extra orchestra seats were set up to admit 300 more), so when Leno walked swiftly down the aisle to the stage, the crowd turned and cheered the way it would a boxer entering the ring, primed for the main event.
“So what’s new in the world?” he began. “Surgeon General (C.) Everett Koop is retiring. He’s against drugs, liquor and sex. That’ll be some retirement party, I’ll bet. What’ll they have, a nurse jump out of a giant bran muffin?” His energy rolled just ahead of the crowd, like foam on a wavelet.
He did some Exxon Valdez jokes (“How do you hit the biggest state in the union at 2 m.p.h.?”) and other topical jokes on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (“More guys have come forth to say they’ve had sex with Jim Bakker, but not with Tammy. What would you choose? ‘Nah, I’ll take Jim.’ ”).
He did a few jokes on the hiring of older people by McDonald’s (“Now at 80 you can make as much as you did when you were 16. . . . Don’t you wanna see your grandfather out in the parking lot with a nail on the end of a stick picking up trash?”) and then moved into one of his almost lyric set pieces on going to the movies (“The movie house. Pardon me, the concrete bunker at the end of the mall! “), a segment so rich with linguistic description that it resembles a prose poem (vividly expressive language is something Leno works hard at polishing; he’ll labor at a word picture as much as he’ll angle for a joke).
The centerpiece of his act is a series of serpentine anecdotes about his parents, based on the theme “You become the parents and they become the kids,” an exercise in bewilderment at how they can never seem to get with the modern world (his mother keeps the TV remote control in a drawer for fear of missing the screen with its potent invisible ray and zapping the newsboy on his bike outside). There’s a long passage about his father indignantly carrying a foul, rotted toilet seat back to the hardware store where he bought it--one of its decrepit screws had disintegrated just a few months before its 20-year warranty was about to expire, and his dad was in search of justice.
The segment is characteristic of the mix of impressions Leno shares with his audience, the common subtext of family life, of comical embarrassments, chafing bonds, exasperation, the sense that their frailty represents one’s own fate, and that for all our smartness there remains a quality to their lives that has gone out of our own. Leno doesn’t patronize his audience with the fulsome sanctimoniousness of a Danny Thomas; his is more a comedy of recognition rather than derision. That’s why the audience warms to him as much as it does--he enlists its trust.
He played the crowd Jimmy Brogan-style live for a few minutes (“What do you do, sir? Building inspector? Oh, I see those envelopes in your jacket stuffed with cash.”), told a few more jokes, and went off to a standing ovation, a bit over 1 1/2 hours after he came on.
“Good crowd,” he said in the trailer afterward, gobbling fruit, crackers and cheese to restore his depleted energy. “Straight. Frighteningly straight. Lotta people out there who don’t see comics, ‘No, let’s not go see a comedian. They’re too dirty.’ Well, that’s the good thing about comedy. It’s inexpensive when you get down to the cleaning bill.”
The stage manager let in a group of autograph seekers. “I saw you in Columbus a few months ago,” a woman said. “I can’t remember where I was Monday,” Leno replied. The comedian who did the opening act came back to say hello. He was a short, slender bespectacled young Canadian named Howard Busbang who strongly resembled Woody Allen, both in attitude and in the way his brow furrowed in circumflexes of worry.
“I don’t know if you know this, but I used a joke about the Ford Probe that was a lot like yours,” he said.
“Yeah,” Leno replied. “I wondered why there was a little dead spot there.”
“I’ll cut it,” Howard said.
“No, that’s all right. I’ll cut mine,” Leno said. “There’s plenty of others. It doesn’t matter.”
On the ride back to the hotel, he slumped back in his seat. “It’s rejuvenating,” he said, though his body language suggested otherwise. The topic of joke-stealing came up. “I get ripped off. Everybody gets ripped off. There’s nothing you can do about it. You just learn to write faster.”
It was well past midnight. The car approached a fast-food joint called Fat Man’s Pizza and Subs. “Ooh, my kind of place,” Leno said. “Pull over here. Anybody want anything?” Getting hold of a good meal is such an improbability for Leno that he’s learned to live on a junk diet--you can’t perform on a full stomach, and by the time he’s left the theater, the town or city is usually closed down for the night.
He went in for an order of chicken wings and, while waiting, munched on a pizza slice. Clearly, everyone was aghast that Jay Leno had showed up at this dumpy little joint; men in jeans and work outfits, or wearing house-painter’s hats, or cruising teens would carry their orders to their cars and look back incredulously. Inside, the teen-age cashier whose father owned the place asked if Leno would call her home to say hello. Leno did. The girl’s mother probably suspected a crank. Leno’s face took on that look of disbelief--that impassive click--which comes of having been hung up on.
Back in the car, he tasted the wings. “A bit too spicy when you’re facing four hours sleep,” he said. “But good.” He let himself in the door of his hotel precariously balancing the box of wings, a large cup of soda and his clothing bag. It was close to 2 a.m. He’d be up for two more hours working on next week’s “Tonight Show” monologue, which takes seven hours to prepare.
The next morning’s 7 o’clock flight to Boston was routed through Syracuse with a 90-minute layover in which Leno ate a leisurely breakfast in the airport diner.
“You have to have a responsibility to your audience,” he said, by way of discussing his outlook on concertizing and selection. “There was a ‘Saturday Night Live’ segment called ‘Jew or Not Jew,’ which was like some kind of Nazi presence. I didn’t get it. ‘Michael Landon--Jew or Not Jew.’ Aaank! The buzzer goes off: ‘Jew!’ They never met the people they’re talking about. Franken & Davis did a bulimia joke on ‘The Tonight Show.’ I didn’t know what they’d do. I must’ve gotten 60 letters and calls from people whose daughters or relatives had died from bulimia.”
He cut up his eggs with his fork. “Arsenio Hall and I go way back. I’d leave my Boston apartment open for any comedians who needed a place. There were very few of us in those days. I call him now and then if he’s had someone on who I don’t think is good. Like Jessica Hahn. You may win the ratings, but it does something to your credibility in the long run.”
Asked about how he keeps track of his jokes, he replied, “Do you mean do I keep a joke file? Come on, forget it. Jokes have a short life. You write new ones. This isn’t a product and services job. It’s piecemeal. Easy work. Time-consuming, but easy. It sure beats making a movie.”
He passed a group of college-age men at the cashier’s desk. “Hiya, guys,” he said. “Where ya headed? On a Bahamian cruise? There’s no women on those cruises. Don’t believe the ads.”
He sat down near the gate awaiting his flight to Boston, where he would go on to see his parents in Andover and borrow his father’s car for the drive down to Warwick, R.I., the site of his next concert. “It’s amazing how many people do this who don’t like doing this,” he said. “I don’t make money to make money, or to make investments and then quit. This is fun. I did it for years without making money.”
A slender, good-looking young man who would’ve appeared right at home in Studio City recognized Leno, said hello and pressed an envelope with an 8 x 10 photo of himself before leaving. Leno slipped it in his bag appreciatively.
“Sometimes, they give me pictures with their autograph,” he said. “You get, ‘Say Jay, if you know any casting people out there in L.A.,’ or, ‘If I come out, can I use your agent to work some places?’ ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ I tell them. ‘Well, it’s no effort from you.’ ‘You don’t understand. That’s not how it works.’ ‘OK, OK. You just don’t wanna do anything.’ ” He gave a rueful grin, indicating how easy it was for one to be cast as a heavy.
The next day he took out his father’s white Cadillac to pick up Lewis Trumbore, a friend whom he had known since grade school, and Busbang, who would once again open for him, for the drive down to Rhode Island. (“I don’t want it to be said that Leno lets his opening act travel the bus,” he said about Busbang earlier. “Besides, I like to let young people know there’s an audience out there beyond the clubs. Sometimes, if a clean comic follows a dirty comic and doesn’t get the laughs, he gets discouraged.”)
They hit heavy Boston traffic, infamous for its unconscionable drivers who shoehorn their cars into non-existent spaces at such radical and peremptory angles that their moves seem a modern equivalent of the medieval joust. Leno handled the spaghetti-twists with aplomb. Approaching a tollbooth, he said, “How do you tell a tollbooth officer he’s doing a good job or a bad job? I mean, what does he do? Boston makes no sense. There’s no north or west or south.”
“That comes from the British,” Trumbore said.
Over the entrance to a Boston tunnel, a billboard advertised a liquor product that boasted one-third less alcohol and calories. “Yeah,” said Leno sardonically, “you can just see the guy who drinks that rotgut, sitting in his own urine and feces, worrying about calories.”
They discussed the high school teachers they shared at Andover--many of whom are still teaching. “The same jackets. The same dust on the sleeves,” Leno recalls, with a touch of incredulity. “When I’d go on the air, I’d get letters from Miss Hannigan criticizing my English.” He spoke of one teacher he recently visited. “He kept telling me how his sex life was greater than ever. I didn’t want to hear it.”
Leno guided the Cadillac through Boston traffic and opened up speed on I-95 heading south toward Providence. He’d made the trip a number of times before, when he opened for Tom Jones and Perry Como. “I moved the farthest away from Andover--to California,” he said. “Lewis moved the second farthest--100 yards away from his old house.”
The discussion continued on through Pawtucket. “I saw ‘Terry and Sally,’ ” Trumbore said. Leno looked at him. “ ‘Terry and Sally,’ ” he repeated, like Oliver Hardy reproaching Stan Laurel for a gaffe. “You mean ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ You’re just like my Dad. He tells me, ‘We’re going to see ‘Batmen.’ ‘Bat man ,’ Dad. Man ! There’s only one.’ Once he says to me, ‘Did you know that Elvis Presley is Puerto Rican?’ ‘Where’d you hear that?’ ‘I read it in Time magazine,’ he says. ‘You didn’t read that in Time,’ I said. ‘Go look it up. It’s on the pile in the basement.’ ‘I’m not gonna go through an old pile of magazines to look for an article I know isn’t there,’ I said.” He shook his head. “The funniest is when my mom and dad are arguing, and they’re both wrong.”
They pulled up to the front of Warwick Music Fair, where a teen-age boy in blue jeans and a white shirt was directing traffic. He peered into the car quizzically. “Who’re you?” he said (Leno’s named was prominently featured on the marquee behind him). “Jay Leeno,” Leno said. “I got the concession.”
“The one in the rear?” the boy asked.
“Yeah,” Leno replied.
“Pull up to the cop over there,” the teen-ager directed.
“I’d love it if they’d just once say, ‘Hey, there’s Howard Busbang,’ ” Busbang said.
“I’m amazed at performers who get mad when people don’t recognize them,” Leno said.
The routine and setting was much the same as any of Leno’s other appearances. A Spartan trailer to dress in. A rudimentary food tray. Letters and photo requests on a table. He pointed to a large, mustard-yellow Naugahyde couch. “I fell asleep on this once years ago. It was a hot day. When I got up I peeled my skin off.”
A theater employee ushered in a group of radio contest winners, one of them disabled and wheelchair-bound. Leno posed for photos with each of them, joking and putting everyone at ease. After they cleared out, he sat and reminisced about his early days in Hollywood.
“There were only about 20 to 25 of us then,” he recalled. “Billy Crystal. J. J. Walker. Freddie Prinze. I’d get picked up by the cops in L.A. for vagrancy. They’d throw me in the back seat. After a few questions, they’d say, ‘He’s all right,’ and buy me a doughnut. ‘Don’t be back here tomorrow,’ they’d say. But I’d be back. Where else was I going to go? They’d say, ‘OK, back in the car.’ ” His head dropped back on the chair. “Mavis (his wife) can tell when I’m asleep up there. I add up columns of numbers in my head while I’m doing the act.”
“I don’t understand,” Trumbore said.
“It’s left brain/right brain,” Leno said. “It’s a challenge to make them up while you’re working.”
Busbang’s act was coming through the loudspeaker. He sounded tense, wired-up. “I’ll smack you,” he said to someone in the audience, early in the act. He was playing to a club atmosphere of hostility and sexual abrasiveness that didn’t exist in this environment. Leno looked up alertly. “This isn’t the right audience for what he’s doing. He’s not listening.”
On the drive back to Boston, after leaving Busbang off at a local hotel, Leno reminisced about some of the rotten gigs he had starting out. “I was fronting for Rare Earth at George Washington University. They wouldn’t let me get on the stage, so I was at the same level with this huge audience of drunken students. They yanked the mike out of my hands and I had to pay management $75.
“There was that midway in Minnesota where I stood between the pig elephant tent and the half-woman, half-snake exhibit. It had a picture of Liz Taylor over a snake. But inside it was this horrible fetus with a snake attached. You paid a quarter. It was horrible. I had a weak mike. This guy comes by and yells, ‘Hey! You supposed to be funny? You ain’t funny!’ The worst was when I auditioned for the second Jack Paar show. The talent guy says to me, ‘Is that the suit you’re gonna wear on the show?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ He says to me, ‘Listen, go on home. This isn’t for you.’ ”
He segued into some of the descriptions he’s read about himself: “ ‘He has a head like an urban rock sculpture.’ ‘The anvil-headed Leno.’ ‘The pelican-headed Leno.’ ” He chuckled. “They wanted to re-make ‘American Hot Wax’ for TV. I went over to the studio and saw a note where they were asking for ‘A Jay Leno type but better looking.”’
“I’ve known him for 30 years, since grade school,” Trumbore said later. “He’s always been driven. He could never sit still at a table. There was always a leg or a knee jumping. He was the class clown in school. In his yearbook he wrote, ‘Future retired millionaire.’ ” Trumbore is a slender, ethereal-looking man who works for the Raytheon Co. and lives in Andover with his wife and 7-year-old daughter.
“We’ve grown closer over the years instead of farther apart,” he said. “A lot of that’s Jay’s doing. I’d hate to have his phone bill. Wherever he is in the country, if he has 10 minutes, he’ll call and say, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ I think when he asks about the house and prices and things like that, it’s a way of keeping his head screwed on. There’s a network of about 15 or 20 of us which he does as much as anybody to keep going. Earlier this year, a friend of ours named Bruce committed suicide. It was really hard on us all, especially Jay. He called the police. He wanted to know if there was foul play. But there wasn’t. Still, we couldn’t understand. I think it brought us all closer, even though we’re married and have places and kids.
“We worried a lot about Jay at one time. We knew he was having it rough. The only time I ever saw him drunk was at a New Year’s party when he kept yelling ‘Leno in Lights! Leno in Lights!’ It’s been a lot of hard times for him. But he hasn’t changed a bit. When we visited his house last April, only then did I realize he’s that big. Somebody here said, ‘He does things for life.’ He’s loyal to the Carson show. He’s married for life and he has his friends for life.”
After the Warwick engagement, Leno flew home to do “The Tonight Show,” where he hosted B. B. King, writer P. J. O’Rourke and Ally Sheedy, who was as self-consciously silly as a young teen-ager worrying about her first date (Leno took her hand protectively at the end of her segment). After the show, his manager, Helen Kushnak, sent him back to makeup for a haircut. He flew out of LAX at 6 the next morning, bound for Wallingford, Conn., via Chicago and Hartford. He stopped for a pizza slice at O’Hare. It was 8 in the morning.
“I stayed up ‘til 2:30,” he said of the previous night. “I wanted to see the show. How old do you think Ally Sheedy is? 27 ! Isn’t that amazing? One of the reasons I travel is that I like to see how people react. I like P. J. O’Rourke a lot. But it’s amazing how a lot of the stuff he wrote didn’t work off the page. We needed to get into a couple of things at more depth. For instance, it isn’t enough to say you hate New York. You have to give a reason.”
The audience was standing-room-only at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, even though the electricity went out and a backup generator system provided enfeebled light, like that of a bunker under siege.
Sensing that the light was sure to have a grim emotional effect, Leno pitched his act at a higher energy level. Finding an audience’s emotional edge, that mysterious nerve of attention flickering out there in the heart of darkness, is one of the toughest intangibles a live entertainer faces. Leno’s fast start marshaled a collective keenness from the crowd of 3,200. He was able to modulate his performance without struggle for its entire 1-hour, 20-minute length.
The late start meant an even later departure from the theater, after he had signed autographs and had chat with well-wishers--with whom he often posed for snapshots (he appears genuinely to enjoy this). “I’m Ann,” said one fan. “Don’t ever change. Just don’t .”
The only backstage food tonight consisted of a box of Twinkies. On the way back to the hotel, he stopped at a Jack-in-the-Box for a fast-food dinner to go (Leno is so familiar with that diet that he jokes, “If it doesn’t come in a cardboard box, I won’t eat it”).
Leno returned to Atlanta the next day to do another auto show, then flew to Syracuse the day after that for a date at the New York State Fair. Central New York had been hit by a torrential rainstorm, and Leno sat gloomily in the sparsely furnished trailer behind the stage (for some reason, the trailer interiors are always done up in dreary shades of flophouse brown) as the near-empty grandstand dripped in towering, portentous silence.
“Oh, there’s 13 people out there,” he said, peering out the window where a few brave souls with umbrellas and rain slicks were peppered throughout the stands like stoic winter birds.
Nonetheless, the backstage procession of fans, well-wishers, local TV crews and contest winners began anew. Leno was edgier than usual. He took the measure of a couple of young radio interviewers as amateurs, which prompted the following exchange:
Question: “What’s your most memorable moment?”
Answer: “I don’t know, she was 18. Didn’t give her name.”
Q: “Did you ever go to comedy school?”
A: “Yes, the United States Comedy Academy at Indianapolis, New York.”
Q: “Are you married with children?”
A: “Well, my wife is 13.”
Q: “What’s your biggest break?”
A: “Doing this radio show.”
On the question of obscenity, he replied, “It’s boring. People yell at you in traffic and give you the finger. You’re running up against it all day long. You don’t need to pay $20 to hear a guy swear at you from a stage. A few people are successful with it, like Richard Pryor. But it’s a moral thing. You see a grandfather and a little kid, you don’t wanna yell obscene words at them. I don’t object to it in other comedians; I just don’t do it.”
The various interview crews thanked him and filed out. There were a few desultory security and backstage figures left milling around, as well as a local friend who distributes an automotive magazine (Leno is a car and motorcycle fanatic). Leno slumped in his chair. He was tired, and beginning to free-associate. “They asked me, ‘What’s your funniest joke?’, like I’m gonna tell my favorite joke into the microphone. . . . You notice how Hitler’s become a comedic figure in the videos? You see this David Duke, well-dressed, well-presented. That’s the danger: The fanatic who makes sense. There’s a new racism rearing its head. I think we’re about to see the first skinhead comedian. . . . I worked this area 20 years ago at a college quad. Before you even go on, they yell, ‘You stink!’ This is what show business is. If you grew up in Hollywood, you think it’s all limousines.”
One of the backstage hands told him that Stevie Nicks had canceled an appearance the previous week without calling. “I think she broke her arm,” the man said. “She broke somethin’ . We were expecting 8,000 in the audience.” “She never called?” Leno asked, surprised. “I’d go on with a broken arm.” (Nicks’ publicist claims she did in fact call ahead to cancel.)
“It’s amazing, the riders some of these people put in their contracts,” he said a moment later. They were still killing time.
“I don’t ask for riders,” he said. “I don’t ask promoters for anything. Once in Maine I showed up and there was no mike. ‘Hey, I need a sound system.’ They finally found something scratchy. You won’t believe some of the things some acts demand on the road. Cracked crab. Lobster bisque. Where are you gonna get lobster bisque in Kansas?”
He peered out the window. The storm had blown over and miraculously the stands had filled with people. “Well, it’s time to go to work,” he said. “Looks like 2,000 people out there. Can I have some ice water on stage?”
He walked out through gusty winds to play to a good crowd whose laughter billowed down and out of the stands in waves. A church bell sounded in the middle of his joke about a man who sells his urine for drug users who need clean samples--”Hey, I just sell it. I don’t know what people do with it.” They cheered at his joke about the movie “Big,” in which “A 30-year-old man plays a 13-year-old boy. Now that’s something women don’t see much of.”
The departing storm dropped one more heavy shower in its wake, like a vindictive exit line. Umbrellas began popping up throughout the crowd. “Look at you wimps,” Leno said, jovially. “Look at these three people hiding under that giant condom over there. This looks like a sad Woodstock reunion. Look at this guy, 6-feet-3, 240 pounds, whadda you got there, your Avon kit?”
The storm passed. A heavy freight train rumbled along on its slow inexorable mission behind the grandstand. Later, a huge trailer truck in an adjacent field started up with an echoing, stertorous flatulence. A small group of people near stage left grew skittish when a skunk ran under their seats. Leno remained inscrutable through it all and sent everyone away in good spirits.
Mavis Leno met her future husband in the hall of the Comedy Store in 1976 and got to know more of him when she frequented the Improv.
“It was casual at first--we’d both been involved with other people and didn’t want to be locked in again,” she said. “So we were great friends before we became romantically involved. It took a year before I realized he was the one. We moved in together and were married in 1980.
“Talking to Jay wasn’t like talking to another woman, but there was absolutely nothing dressed up about our conversations. He’s the only man I ever met where I didn’t need to use my bag of tricks, the tricks every man and woman have--you can always tell in a phone conversation the sex of the person on the other end of the line. Being with him was like taking a vacation with a man. I could speak to him person to person. He listens. Nothing whips by him.
“Somebody said, ‘Success doesn’t change people. It just magnifies them.’ I think one of the secrets of his success is his addiction to comedy. If I could make people double up every minute, there’s nothing else I’d want to do either.
“Whenever I was with my girlfriends, we’d get into bitch-fests about guys. But I have no complaints about Jay. I have a great tolerance for being alone, and if he’s out for a long time, I go with him. He’s an equitable, fair man. I’m a great believer in not taking anything for granted. I’ll say, ‘Is there something we should talk about?’ He’ll say, ‘Not really,’ and I believe him. Living with Jay is one of the simplest things I’ve ever done. That’s no easy thing.”
In his own mind, Leno doesn’t feel like an especially driven man. But he senses that the speculation about what fuels him points to something inexplicable, even ravenous.
Preparing for an upcoming “Tonight Show,” he sat on his dressing room couch and talked about starting out in Boston with his college roommate, joining a comedy improv group called Fruit Cocktail, and then his early struggles, driving to New York from Boston daily to play the handful of clubs in operation at the time, then coming to Los Angeles.
He recalled Johnny Carson catching him at the Improv one night and saying, “You’re a nice man, but I don’t think you’re right for the show. Not enough jokes.”
“I always took criticism well,” Leno said. “He was right. I had mostly attitude and not a lot of material. Now, I tell younger comedians that what you need is 2 1/2 hours of jam-packed material squeezed into 90 minutes.”
Leno’s first “Tonight Show” spot came in March, 1977. “Then it was the classic story: You’re great on the first shot, very good on the second, fine on the third, and OK on the fourth. After that I didn’t do the show for years. I went out on the road with Perry Como. If you wanna be a comedian, you should want to play every audience in the country. I’d rather do 100 shows for 70 people than one show for 7,000 people.
“What motivates me? I don’t know. My grandfather was an Italian immigrant. I always felt that restlessness to go somewhere else. Back East I’m that crazy comedian from California, but here I’m the straightest guy in the world. I don’t smoke or drink or do drugs. Maybe it’s an inferiority thing with my older brother, who went to Yale and was one of the 10 smartest students in the country.” (Leno’s retired father was in the insurance business, as is his brother now).
“I have an adventurous spirit. It’s one of the things that makes the West Coast different from the East Coast. My dad was in his 50s before we could really talk. He was a child of the Depression; I guess I’ve inherited the fear of being broke.
“I remember that I had ‘The Tonight Show’ to do the day I heard of my friend Bruce’s suicide. ‘Am I cold?’ I wondered. Why was I able to go on? I still can’t answer that question. All I know is that once I decided to do comedy, that was it. Even now, to be able to be onstage for the rest of my life is more important than making X amount of dollars.
“I like people. So much comedy right now is based on viciousness, hate and anger. Audiences laugh, but underneath I don’t think they think it’s funny. People love Red Skelton, Bob Hope. For people to just like you, that’s 99% of the struggle.”
The hall outside the dressing room was filling up with the commotion of the staff arriving for work. Through the door, you could hear the sounds of Doc Severinson’s band warming up with some blazing licks. Leno rose and opened it, as if to gather in the rising energy that would carry him into show time.
It's a date
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