Jay Leno: Still A Stand Up Guy
By David DeRocco
“I’m always happy to talk to the enemy, Canada,” laughs legendary late night host and comedian, Jay Leno, acknowledging the fact he’s being interviewed by a citizen from a rogue nation at war with his president. “It’s hilarious. It’s either this or North Korea.”
Leno knows a thing or two about how to maneuver through another tumultuous cycle in U.S politics; it’s a skill he learned during two decades as host of NBC’s late night institution, The Tonight Show.
“I did it when Bush was dumb and Clinton was horny,” recounts Leno, who has stayed busy since handing the Tonight Show over to Jimmy Fallon in 2014 by booking up to 200 stand up performances a year. “It was a different time. I never questioned anybody’s motives, you just question their judgement. With this one, I question the judgement. I’ve been fortunate enough to have dinner with every president since Gerald Ford, but this one I think I’ll skip.”
As one of only seven fulltime hosts of the legendary late night talk show, Leno has secured his place in American pop culture, earning his Hollywood Walk of Fame star and a rightful place in the Television Hall of Fame. His battles with David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and critics aside, Leno defied his detractors by using his mainstream comic sensibilities to become the King of Late Night. With two shows coming up at the Avalon Ballroom July 25th and 26th, Leno took the time to chat with GoBeWeekly about the darkening of the comedy landscape under Trump, the joys of being a comedian and the best advice he ever got from Johnny Carson.
GOBE: Do you get a sense that there may be looming censorship on the horizon for comics, given the attacks on the media and free speech in America
JAY: We live in an era where I don’t think you see it from the government, you see corporate censorship now. If you’ve ever been associated with anything or accused of anything corporations don’t like, you’re in trouble. There was that teacher who was on vacation and she was photographed holding a beer in a bar. She got fired because the school board saw her holding a beer. She wasn’t with underage kids, she was an adult. She wasn’t drunk or scantily dressed. It was just a picture of her toasting something. That’s the world we live in now. You can say what you want, you just pay a really high price now for saying it if corporations don’t want anything to do with you.
GOBE: You’ve got the clout and credibility as one of television’s biggest stars, but do you have any fear as a comedian working in this climate.
JAY: There’s a little bit of it, but it’s a bit like the MeToo movement. People say ‘hey, that’s unfair to be considered guilty just because you’ve been accused.’ On the other hand, you say everyone who’s been accused is probably guilty (laughing). You kind of go, ‘yeah, the guy just kind of seems like that kind of guy.’ All the guys this has happened to, I’ve heard stories about for years. Other people you don’t hear anything about. You never hear Obama involved in anything. Trump denies he’s had affairs with these women. He used to brag about them all on the Howard Stern show. Now’s he’s denying it. The constitution is a pretty amazing document. We’ve had terrible presidents before. We do seem to get through them without assassination or revolution or overthrowing the government.
GOBE: So is it a good time or a bad time to be a comic.
JAY: Is it a good time to be a comic? No, not really. The best comedy comes when you have a certain amount of affection for the person you’re talking about. When you really don’t like the person you’re talking about the comedy can take a turn. Like right now we live in an era where if you don’t believe in a comedian’s politics you don’t like the comedian, which doesn’t make any sense. It’s just human nature. People pay to watch you do comedy. I make a few jokes on both sides. I watched my friend Jerry Seinfeld a while back. It was just refreshing to hear jokes. I didn’t have to agree or disagree with the jokes. Trump is such a divider, he makes it hard. Take football for example. I know every kind of person, Republican, Democrat, they all like football. Trump has managed to divide them.
GOBE: Are you surprised by the number of people who have never been to a comedy club, or have only gone once or twice. To me going to a comedy club should be right up there with going to a movie or going out to dinner.
JAY: It’s interesting when you look at the comedy clubs that have sustained. You have a lot of comics now, and I’m not a censorship guy, but you literally have to be a gynaecologist to follow their acts. They play it blue. I used to watch Bill Cosby before all this happened, and I remember he never swore in his act. He did a whole 20 minute routine about an old lady playing slot machines, and when she finally pulled the handle, she said ‘shit.” Just really quietly. And it got a huge laugh, because Cosby used the expletive in the best possible way to get the reaction. I’ve seen a lot of comedy clubs deteriorate because people go there once, and they go ‘it’s really funny, but don’t bring your mom or girlfriend.’ People have the ability to know when something’s a little over the line. I’m not talking censorship. Redd Foxx once played the Westbury in New York. It was the height of Sanford and Son, and they had huge signs out front saying ‘this is not Sanford and Son’s Fred Sanford, this is Redd Foxx, triple X.’ All these Jewish grandmothers from Long Island were bringing their grandkids to the show. And Redd Foxx, his opening joke was ‘You know the problem with eating pussy? They put the snack bar too close to the shit house.’ That was his opening. Those people ran out of there. Comedy clubs that I find survive are the ones that just play it down the middle, PG13 to R. Once you’re into Triple X your mom’s not going to that club.
GOBE: So how do you approach a casino show, where half the crowd may be fans but the other half are most likely elderly gamblers who were comped the tickets.
JAY: If you have a joke that works in Toronto, or Miami, Oklahoma City or Moose Jaw, it’s probably going to work there. Seinfeld and I have this discussion all the time. There are people who are humourists and there are people who are comedians. A comedian has just enough material to try and have a joke every 15 or 20 seconds, to just try and keep it moving. You gear your material to your audience. Stand up is the most primitive form of entertainment. With the exception of the microphone, there’s nothing even 20th century about it. It’s just a person talking. It’s like a storyteller or a town crier. Just show up and start talking and see what happens. I love the minimalist attitude about it. The great thing about being a stand up is, if the show’s at 8 o’clock, the plane lands at 7:15, you take a half hour ride to the gig. You get there and go, I’ve got to kill 15 minutes. If you’re a musician, you have to come in the night before, do sound check, your bass player is drunk, your piano player fell down the stairs. It’s so easy.
GOBE: Were you thinking it was easy March 22, 1977, when you were standing behind the Tonight Show curtain as Johnny Carson was introducing you for the first time. What was going through your mind.
JAY: The interesting thing was, I like to think I did it the right way. I started in Boston, I played Yuk Yuks in Toronto, I did a million clubs. I was the only comedian I met for the first year I was on the road. I had no idea how bad I was. But by the time I got to Hollywood, I’d had enough experience on stage. Although The Tonight Show was the show that put you on the map, I had done Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore and all the other talk shows . By the time I got to The Tonight Show I kind of knew how it worked. I wasn’t nervous. The Tonight Show had passed on me a couple times. Johnny actually gave me the best piece of advice ever, because at the time I was a better performer than I was a writer. Johnny said ‘you perform really well, you can take a joke that’s not funny and get a laugh out of it. But here’s what you should do. You should write your joke out on a card. You should then go in front of an audience and read that joke as dull and flat as possible, and if it gets a laugh, you know you’ve got a solid joke. Then you can go perform it.’
GOBE: You’ve had time now to digest what you accomplished, and really, you’re one of only seven people in the history of the world who’ve done what you’ve done – hosted the Tonight Show. While we all have dreams, they don’t always come true. How do you put that accomplishment in perspective in the grand scheme of your life and career.
JAY: I am a huge believer in low self-esteem. If you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’ll listen instead of talk. I’m dyslexic. My mother used to say to me, ‘you know you’re going to have to work twice as hard to get famous.’ That worked for me. The nice think about dyslexic people is when they find something they like they tend to like it an focus on it, almost to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t really dwell on things. Will Rogers always used to say you’re only as good as your last joke and it’s true. Even now when I go do The Tonight Show, I don’t go sit on the panel and pontificate on how it was when I did it. I do stand up. There’s nothing harder than writing a joke. A lot of comedians will go to great lengths to avoid writing a joke. They’ll do straight interview shows, get involved in politics. Writing is really hard. Writing a school shooting joke it hard, but here’s one that’s working. I say President Trump says he wants to arm teachers. You know, have you really thought about this? For example, the school librarian. Will her gun have to have a silencer? It’s a terrible subject, it’s hard to write about it, but it actually works. When I did The Tonight Show we never did less than a 12 minute monologue. No one cares about you, they want to hear the jokes.
GOBE: Final question Jay. If you had to drive one of your cars for the rest of your life, which one would you drive.
JAY: Fortunately we don’t live under a communist system yet, so I don’t have to make that choice. I wrote a whole article about this. If would have to be the most practical car. Like, the Gullwing Mercedes that I love, it has no air conditioning, the windows don’t roll down, it’s got gullwing doors, you can’t park it. If you had to drive one car the rest of your life, it would have to be a Ford Focus, something you can use under normal circumstances. The Dusseldorf won’t cut it.
(Carousel photo credit: NBC Tonight Show)