Q&A: Jay Leno
Jay Leno didn’t have to maintain a prolific schedule of live appearances while he hosted The Tonight Show, but comedy hasn’t stopped firing his engines since he became one of stand-up’s comedy mainstays in the ’70s. Now liberated of his nightly hosting duties, he parlayed his love of cars into CNBC series Jay Leno’s Garage and has more time than ever to create fresh material. He spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about his formative years during stand-up’s golden age.
In an early-’80s Reader’s Digest profile you described being chastised by an audience member for opening a joke with “Reagan, what a jerk.” You said you made a conscious decision not to fall back on negative humor as a substitute for intelligence. Do you recall that?
Yeah, that’s probably … sort of, sort of. I think I remember talking about that, yeah. I think I remember also that I was never dirty enough to be a dirty comic. To me the fun part was always trying to come up with metaphors that were more interesting. In those days on TV—this was before HBO and stuff—you had to work clean. Like when I’d be on the Letterman show and I’d call somebody an asshole and they’d bleep it. I’d always try to come up with funny phrases or words that I thought Letterman would think funny, like “Dave, I go to this thing and they have a syphilitic druid at the door.” Syphilitic druid. What is a syphilitic druid? I realized it was more fun. Nobody’s really shocked by bad language anymore. You’re just bored by it. “Okay, I’ve heard that word before. Give me something else.” So to try and come up with something a bit more creative seemed like a bit more fun.
This was at a time when Eddie Murphy’s star was rising and Richard Pryor was on top with Live on the Sunset Strip. Your approach ran against the current of where comedy was going at the time. The example you gave then was calling a heckler a “sodomite.”
Right, right. So many comedians, the greats … Bob Newhart, so many others. I don’t have anything against it. It’s just not my thing. My job is not to antagonize the audience. Bob Newhart told me a funny story. He didn’t tell me who the comedian was, but he said he went to The Comedy Store to see the hot new guy, and he said the comedian gets on stage and says “Where you from?” “Denver.” “F*ck Denver.” And the audience laughs and Bob says, “I don’t get it.” And then (the comedian) goes “Where ya from?” “Boston.” “F*ck Boston.” Big laugh. Bob goes, “I don’t get that one either.” He just went on and on saying “f*ck” every other word, and he got a laugh. The real trick is to separate hype from the joke. I can remember years ago when Robin Williams was at the height of Mork & Mindy, zoomed past all of us into superstardom, and he came into the Improv one day and he said, “Come here, Leno.” And I said “What is it, Robin?” He said, “Watch my act and tell me if any of this stuff is funny.” So I watched it and it got huge laughs, and Robin said, “What do you think?” I said, “It wasn’t funny. You’re getting laughs because …” You know, Robin’s going (makes Williams-like sound effects) that kind of stuff. He goes, “That’s what I thought, but I can’t tell because everybody’s laughing at what I’m doing now. I can’t tell if anything’s funny anymore.” That’s kind of a problem that happens a little bit. I mean, it’s a problem all comics would like to have, but after a while, sooner or later you’re going to have to fall back on the strength of your joke. Johnny Carson came in to see me one time. This was before I got on the Tonight Show, and he pulled me aside. He goes, “You know, you’re a good performer. You can take a crappy joke and make it funny, but it’s still a crappy joke. The real trick is to perform it funny, and than have a funny joke. You work on both fronts.” And so I got in the habit of … what I would do when I would get ready for The Tonight Show, I would go down to the Comedy Magic Club or the Improv, and I would get onstage with cards. And I would read the joke in the dullest, most boring voice possible. And if the joke got a laugh, oh good, the joke’s funny. And then I would add the performance part to it later, because now I have a joke that works on two fronts. You’re laughing because you think it’s funny, or you’re laughing because of the way I said it. If both of those aspects work, then you have a joke that really works. That was something that I learned from Johnny that I sort of took with me throughout my career. To this day, actually.
Do you still do Sunday nights at the Hermosa Comedy & Magic Club?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been there every Sunday since ’78.
Are there people that go there regularly just to hear you try out material?
I have no idea. Maybe. A lot of times you’ll go there just to try out one joke, but you’ll do your whole act just to get to this one joke to see if it gets a laugh.
The last thing I read about you before this interview was how you used to watch comedy with your Mom on TV and pay attention to what made her laugh.
Yeah, because my mother had the oddest sense of humor. The things that made my mother laugh always made me laugh. I think most comedians have that kind of relationship with their parents. My mom came to this country when she was 11 as a little girl. They put her on a boat to be a servant girl because there were two many kids in the family. My grandmother had run off, so they just sent her to America. It’s what they did back in the day. So my mother always had a little bit of sadness about her. As a little kid I thought it was my job to make my mother laugh. My dad was very loud and Italian, so my dad always had a lot of things going on. My mom was very quiet and Scottish, and thrifty and modest, and all that kind of stuff. That’s why it was The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. It used to be The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno, and my mother’d go (affects Scottish accent), “Oh, Starring Jay Leno. Oh, Mr. Big Shot. He’s starring in the show.” “Okay, Ma, I’m going to change it.” So I changed it to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno just to placate my mother, who thought I was getting to big for my britches. Making my mom laugh was always an important part of comedy for me, and also my mom had great empathy. I would do a bit and she’d go, “It’s funny but it’s kind of mean.” Then I would temper it back a little bit. Ultimately, she was right. I mean, there are no jokes. Everything has some sort of meaning. It’s the same reason I don’t do wife jokes. There’s always way too much truth in it. Do you remember a comedian named Skip Stephenson?
Yeah, from (1979-1984 NBC reality series) Real People, which you wrote for, for a little bit.
Yeah. Skip Stephenson had gotten a divorce and I saw him one time at The Comedy Store, and he’s up there going “Anyway, my f*cking ex-wife.” The anger was so unbelievable, it was like, “Jesus Christ!” I said, “Skip, the anger is overwhelming the joke. Calm down.” He goes, “No, no, no. I think it’s funny. I go, “It’s funny to you. To the audience you’re coming off as an angry, crazy guy. Temper it down a bit.” So that’s why … I looked to my dad to get the laugh, I looked to my mom to get the empathy, to bring the joke … just temper it a little bit. I always got what Dave Chappelle was talking about. Do you remember when Dave Chappelle quit his show, because some white guy laughed a little too hard at a joke? Do you know what I’m talking about?
I always empathized with that, because I got it, because there’s be a lot of times you’d do a joke, and people would laugh at the joke for the wrong reasons. Like you do a Hilary Clinton joke. “Ha ha. That (inaudible).” Okay, okay. That’s not where I’m going with this joke. When Dave Chappelle said he did a joke, and it was a black-white joke, and the white guy really laughed at it, he took it as a personal insult against the black character. And I got that, and that’s really what comedy … getting the laugh is not easy, but it’s really not as hard as fine-tuning it and getting it to the point where people understand where you’re coming from, where your heart is in the joke. There are some comedians you laugh at because their jokes are funny, but when their jokes aren’t funny you don’t laugh at them. And then there are other comedians that you just like, and even if their jokes are not that funny you’re laughing because you like them. Kevin Nealon does that to me. Kevin Nealon is so likeable and funny he’ll just talk and you find yourself smiling and laughing ’cause there’s a gentleness to what he’s talking about. You realize there’s no anger there. Sometimes anger can be really funny, you know? Like Kinison. Nobody’s more angry that Kinison, but you see where the anger got him.
Do you see parallels between how your interests in cars and comedy originated? You bought your first truck before you could drive it and patiently worked on it until you were ready to drive. It seemed like you applied the same approach to your development as a comedian.
Yeah, that’s probably true. I was fortunate in that I started in Boston. I’d never met another comedian so I didn’t know how bad I was. I would just go places and get up, and try to tell some jokes. It was good. It was okay. It wasn’t bad. I mean, what I used to do is in Boston I would go to clubs and I put $50 on bar and I would say, “Let me get up and tell some jokes. If I get no laughs and people hate me, you keep the $50, if I do good, give me my $50 back.” Once in a while I lost $50, but for the most part it was okay. That’s how I got started. By the time I got to the Improv and Catch a Rising Star and all those places in New York or L.A., I had been doing it for a year or so, so I wasn’t totally green. It was actually quite helpful.
One of the more fascinating things I read was how you would do George Carlin’s Class Clown album in your head and time it so when you reached the end of Carlin’s material you’d segue into your own. By doing that you put yourself in the zone and avoid any insecurity that might creep into you head.
Most comedians, the first five minutes defines who you are and it’s hard to come up with that first five minutes. It’s hard to just start talking. That was for a class. I went to Emerson College. You had to give this oral report in this public speaking class, so I figured I do a comedy routine but I remember standing in the hall doing George Carlin’s Class Clown bit. I never said it out loud to anybody, then as soon as they said my name I’d go, “Here’s what I did in school,” because in my mind I was getting laughs, doing the Carlin thing, and then I would segue into my own. I never did it in front of an audience, George’s bit, obviously. I actually told George that story years later.
What was his response?
Oh, he was very kind about it. He said, “Thanks.” I said, “I never did it onstage.” He said, “I appreciate that.” I think he enjoyed being an inspiration to a lot of young comedians.
What do you recall about your first trips to New York to get on Budd Friedman’s Improv stage?
I used to work at a car dealership, and we would have to pick up cars in New York and drive them back to Boston. This was before the days of putting them on flatbed trucks and stuff. So we would have to go down to Elizabeth, N.J., get the car off the dock and then I would take a detour and stop in New York and try to get on at the Improv.
What was it like during the drive when you were heading to New York for the first time?
Well, don’t forget before I got to the Improv in New York I had worked Lenny’s on the Turnpike in Boston. I had worked a bunch of strip clubs in Boston as a comedian. Even though I was auditioning at the Improv I had had some stage time, so it wasn’t my first time onstage. It wasn’t like I had never been in front of an audience before. One thing I did do, I worked for a Rolls Royce/Mercedes-Benz dealer, and I had picked up a Roll Royce in New York and I had to deliver it to a guy. The guy gave me $30,000 in cash, so I had the $30,000 in the car and I got another car and I said, “Well, let me go into New York,” and I had the $30,000 in a brown paper bag. I said, “Don’t want to leave $30,000 in a Rolls Royce parked on the street in New York. I’ll take it with me in the club.” So I put the bag on the piano, and then I did my set and it went really well. I said, “Ah, great. I killed, hooray!” I get back in the car, I’m driving, I’m playing the tape (of the set)—I’ve got a little cassette player in the car. I get to the turnpike in New Jersey and I realize I don’t have the $30 grand. I left it in the bag on the piano. So I turn around and go back to New York. It’s now 2 o’ clock on the morning, like eight people in the audience, some singer onstage, and I look and I see my bag still on the piano. I go, “Excuse me, I forgot my lunch. Sorry, sorry to bother you.” I would still be in jail now.
Friedman was interested in managing you for a minute, right?
He did manage me for a short time, and he thought I was a really rich kid because every time I pulled up I had a different Rolls Royce. I didn’t tell him I was working for a car salesman. He was like, “Who is this kid with all these cars? Come in! Please come in!”
What early comedians were there with you? I know Jimmie Walker was there.
Rich Lewis, Freddie Prinze, Jimmie, a kid named Steve Lubetkin who later committed suicide. Quite a few comics, quite a few comics.
William Knoedelseder’s book I'm Dying Up Here makes the time you came up in sound like the golden age of stand-up.
Well it was, and it was an interesting time because the country was pretty serious. Most people were like, “Stop your war machine, man!” It was all like serious folksingers and stuff. At the Improv, he would get like 10 singers and two comics. Now everybody wants to be a comedian, hundreds of people, thousands of people doing comedy. But back then there really weren’t very many. It was a really sort of isolated area. Even Emerson College, where I went to college, it was a performing arts school, and I said, “Well, I’m a stand-up comedian.” And they said, “You have to take acting. There’s no such thing … you don’t study stand-up.” It was just something unusual. In one sense it was good because you got a lot of stage-time. On the other hand it was kind of weird because there wasn’t anybody else doing it.
Did audiences in Vegas take to you right away?
I used to open for Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis. I opened for everybody in Vegas. I enjoyed it. It was fun. I remember when Caesars Palace was the only hotel that far out on the Strip. It was Caesars and then the Flamingo right across the street. I used to think, “Why’d you build this place in the middle of nowhere? Everything’s downtown. This is crazy.” And of course now it’s all built to the hilt, but it was fun. I liked it. It was tricky, but you know when you’re in your 20s and you’re playing to people in their 50s and 60s, its different. It’s not your audience. Now it’s comfortable and its fun because I’m playing to people in my own age group.
Speaking of playing to people in your own age group, your appearances on the first seasons of Letterman in the early ’80s seem groundbreaking considering the context of the times.
Letterman was the first show … every other show I had done, be it Carson, Merv Griffin or any of those shows, you’re the kid and they’re the adult. They would always say, “Call him Johnny,” and I’d say, “I can’t. He’s Mr. Carson.” It was awkward, whereas with Letterman, when he got a show it was the first time I’d been on a show with somebody in my own age group, that I could go, “Hey Dave, nice tie!” I couldn’t be sarcastic or smart-assed with Johnny, because it just was not appropriate or it wasn’t comfortable, whereas with Dave, I used to love going on the show eating a huge meatball sandwich or something. I’d shove the sandwich in his face and he’d push it away. People thought it was really funny, and it was funny because it was so spontaneous. You couldn’t do that with Johnny.
When you’d say something that resonated with Letterman, the appreciation showed on his face.
Letterman was always a great wordsmith. The funny thing about our relationship was when we started out I was loud, very verbose and whatnot. Letterman was sort of quiet. Letterman, at that time, did not have performing skills, but he had verbal skills. I used to watch him onstage and go, “Boy, the way he strings those words together is really funny,” and then he would say to me, “How can you take such command of the stage like that? You just seem very purposeful.” And we just sort of learned from one another. I learned the importance of having really clever phrasing of things from Dave and I think he learned a little bit about working the room. I think we complemented each other in the early days.
Jay Leno’s Garage is pretty entertaining and you seem very happy doing it.
Yeah, it’s fun doing that. I don’t have to talk to dopey celebrities anymore. It’s great. I don’t have to pretend to like the movie. It’s really a lot of fun.
You just introduced your line of vehicle-care products. How long has it been in in development?
A few years. It’s stuff we use here at the show and I thought, “Let’s give it a try.” And you know, if you trademark a name you have to come up with some products, or something to trademark. This is what we did, and this seemed like a good way to do it. It’s stuff we actually use and it’s stuff we developed here, so that’s where we are.
What’s ahead for the next season?
Oh, I don’t know! We just started this new season, so we went down, we did an interview with President Bush driving around in a pickup truck. That was kind of fun. We’re just trying to do more interesting, different things with the show. I do Jay Leno’s Garage on Youtube, which is a more technical show, and Jay Leno’s Garage on CNBC is more lifestyle, just people’s relationship with their car, automobile or motorcycle, whatever it is. It’s just a lot of fun. I’m not a sports guy. I’m not a Broadway guy. You kind of have to fake it a little bit when you’re doing The Tonight Show, whereas this is something I really enjoy, so it makes it pretty easy.