comedian" talks about
ing" women and the
other benefits of life
as a comedian
Arecord 31 appearances on the Late
Night with David Letterman show
combined with more than 300 live
performances a year, have made Jay
Leno the brightest comic star in this thing we like
to call show business. Leno's non-stop touring
not only earned him upwards of $300,000 last
year, but also led to his recently signing a long-
term agreement with NBC Television to star in his
own series of late-night comedy specials. We
caught up with the man who claims he 'never
travels first class because nothing interesting
ever happens there' at his Hollywood Hills
home, where the 1 5-year veteran of the comedy
club/college coffeehouse circuit likes to unwind
by restoring classic motorcycles.
While Leno's frequent on-campus perfor-
mances have made him a cult hero of sorts
among today's college audiences-he's cur-
rently booked a year in advance-his own col-
lege career was something less than illustrious:
"I was always more or less a screw-off,'' Leno
confesses. "So my own college story is real
short. I'd go to Emerson College in the morning,
work at a Rolls Royce/Mercedes dealership in
the afternoon and go down to New York every
night and try to get on at the comedy clubs.
"Since cars like [a Rolls Royce] only come in
one or two at a time, they used to fly me from
Boston down to Paramus, New Jersey, to pick
them up. I'd take the car and stop off in New York
on the way back. I used to like to pull up in front of
the Improv every night in a different colored
Rolls Royce. The owner thought I was some-
body important, so he put me on.
"I mean, it was great. Driving around Boston,
with my long hair and glasses, everybody
thought I was Donovan. But I was never the
boola-boola type. I used to go through the [col-
lege course] catalog ... What's this? 'Speech
Therapy: No written exam. Students will address
the class for five minutes on the subject of their
choice.' Yeah, I'll take that class, because I could
always stand up there and pontificate on some-
thing. It was either that or go into the Army.
"It's funny, but I'm the only one of my old
college friends whose job doesr't somehow
contribute to all those things they used to say
they were against back then. 'Well, I don't make
the Dioxin; I'm just in sales,' you know? With my
job nobody gets cancer of the pancreas-they
just don't laugh."'
'But I don't find any difference between col-
lege students today and college students in the
'60s. Sure, they might be a little more patriot-
ic-not like a Lyndon LaRouche thing, but more
in the sense that they can relate to a movie like
Top Gun. But then, not every student who was
against the war in Vietnam was out burning
down the Bank of America building either.'
Leno chuckles. "But I'll tell you how college
changes you. I came home for Christmas to An-
dover, Massachusetts, which is a small town,
the kind of place where everybody hangs around
in front of Dalton's Drug Store. And one of these
Fonzie-type guys who was a little older than me
and worked at the local tire and rubber company,
asks me, 'Hey, Leno, I hear you're livin' with
some chick down at school or somethin'.' I said,
yeah, that's true. He says, 'Yeah? Are you [hav-
ing sex with] her?' And, you know, if I'd have just
stayed around town, I probably would have
asked the same question!"
A true story, Leno claims, yet one that illus-
trates his ability to extract humor from the most
mundane circumstances. Almost alone among
his comedic contemporaries, Leno cannot be
captured with a simple "nan-oo, nan-oo, or
you look mah-velous" catchphrase.
And Leno is determined notto be ste-
* reotyped, ''Yeah, people have tried
to pin me with the 'evil twin' thing,"
Leno grimaces. ''And 'What's my
beef?' And since that one Letterman show, peo-
ple everywhere have been yelling for this 'Kimba'
joke. Well, I don't want to get stuck, so I had to
get rid of it. It's just a joke.
'You see, when I was in the sixth grade and
screwing around, I had gotten this reputation of
having a hard head. So this kid in shop class hit
me in the head with a hammer. Owl I saw stars. I
was fighting back tears, laughing, pretending it
didn't hurt at all.
''It was terriblel The self-humiliation. All
caused by my trying to live up to what I had pre-
tended to be. I decided I never wanted that to
happen to me again. It's like, after all these
years, whenever Carroll'D'Connor goes out on a
talk show he still has to convince people that
he's not Archie Bunker. It's almost like he's
forced to be serious because otherwise people
expect him to reel off a litnany of racial slurs.''
Leno is insistent."I'm no different onstage
than off. A bit more exaggerated, sure. But I
think comedians are like that. All that stuff about
I don't get it.
It's precisely Leno's workmanlike attitude to-
ward comedy that enables him to function in
such unlikely roles as master of ceremonies for
America's leading advertising trade convention.
"It was like any other job," Leno explains.
"Most of those advertising people are not that
serious. Some are very creative. Sure, there's
the sales people and the egomaniac who gets
offended, but it was great.
"I was introducing these commercials that
won awards. One used the Pointer Sisters'
[song] 'Jump' foran ad that ends with 'There's
more to life than laundry' and the wife and the
husband going out on a date. So, when the com-
mercial ended, I said, 'There's more to life than
laundry-Saul Bellow, '1978' and the place
broke up that this stupid idiotic phrase won this
award, Leno chuckled at the memory.
"No, I don't see anything wrong with doing
ads for Doritos. I made fun of it on Letterman.
Took some Doritos out of my pocket, ate them,
'Ahh, refreshing!' I've always felt you could make
fun of things from within rather than above."
Leno does, however, draw the line some-
where. "But I won't do beer ads. I don't drink
and I don't think these beer companies should be
trying to get 'young adults'-which we all know
him." Leno pauses. "But I see thousands and
thousands of kids every day who copy his style,
throw a lot of obscenities around, but there's no
real anger there, no feeling of injustice that Pryor
has. It's just contrived, and it doesn't work.
"Now, with all the comedy clubs, it's
easy to get into the business. But to
stay in and make a living is hard. You
either have it or you don't. When
people see someone play a musical instrument,
they're amazed, because that's something most
people can't do. But when they see a comedian
go on stage and just talk, they think, well, hell, I
can talk and I'm funny-because saying you're
not funny is like saying you're a bad lay. Every-
body thinks they're funny.
"And I get this all the time. The other day these
two guys came up to me and asked me 'Could
we use your agent to get some work here in
town?' I thought they were put-ons." Leno sug-
gested they start at the usual small clubs for as-
piring comics. "And they said, 'Well, yeah-yeah-
yeah, but if you let us use your agent we won't
have to do those jobs.' I was waiting for some-
one to say, 'You asshole, you believed them,'
but they were quite serious. They thought if my
agent could just book them for five grand a week
somewhere, they'd be fine,"
As might be expected, this manic mechanic
takes a particularly nuts-and-bolts view toward
the necessity for paying one's comic dues. "My
advice to young people is always the same. Try
to get as much stage time as possible. Be the
guy who emcees the talent show, because it's
hard to be funny and a good speaker at the same
time. You've got to learn the one skill first. And if
you go onstage at a comedy club, do it some-
where away from your friends because they're
just going to laugh and holler and give you a hard
"Don't just go down to the Improv or the
Comedy Store on amateur night. The people
who go there are professionals. I've always said
that the worst thing for a comedian is to make
$20,000 a year doing something else. It's easi-
er to start out with nothing and just live off the
land, sleeping on friends' couches and eating
out of their refrigerators for the five years it takes
to really learn your craft."
One of the benefits of such a nomadic lifestyle
lies in the opportunities for meeting a lot of, er,
interesting women. "When I was single, it was
fun " Leno shrugs. "You tend to meet a lot of
women in show business, especially as a come-
dian. I think that women really like to laugh. They
like a sense of humor above a lot of other things,
which most men don't realize. Most guys think a
Rambo-type character is more attractive than a
funny guy, which"-Leno cocks an eyebrow-
"is not necessarily true," *
Don Waller writes on entertainment for the Los
Angeles Times and is the author of The Mo-
means kids-to drink beer. I don't want people
to expect me to drink beer on stage, and I don't
want some father to come to my show saying,
'My kid got killed because of your ad It's all a
matter of personal morality. I draw the line at
taking money for something I don't use.
While acknowledging his respect and
affection for such elder comic states-
men as Rodney Dangerfield and
Shecky Green, Leno names George
Carlin and Robert Klein as his primary comic he-
roes, explaining that "it was the time. When I
was a kid, all the comedians were over 40, doing
material from my Dad's point-of-view, you
"I remember watching the Beatles on Ed Sui-
van with my Dad. I wanted to be real hip and
impress him, so I told him, 'You know, they write
all their own music ' And my Dad says, 'Whad-
dya mean. Some fancy guy gives these kids a
couple of bucks to go out and act loony.' "
Leno cracks up at the memory. "Then all of a
sudden there were these younger comedians
who made jokes about a Stones' album cut,
making fun of stuff that me and my friends talked
about. Untilthen, I actually thought that you had
to be poor, Jewish and born on the Lower East
Side of New York to be a comedian.
"I liked Andy Kaufman, sure. Ilike Sam Kinne-
son. He makes me laugh.. Pryor's great. I love