Today’s Guest: Jay Leno, comedian
By Bob Andelman
May 30, 1986
Jay Leno is very funny.
He’s probably the most recognized comedian doing stand-up today.
But he isn’t the type to sell T-shirts with his picture on them, oi the type to be remembered by some temporarily hip phrase such as Steve Martin was (“Let’s get small”) or an alien greeting such as Robin Williams had (“Nanoo, nanoo”).
You might even laugh from start to finish through one of his live performances and not remember a single joke the next day.
It’s OK – Leno doesn’t want you telling his Jokes tomorrow.
“I think that’s kinda the key to longevity,” he said in a phone interview last week, his voice occasionally changing octaves. “I try not to have a hook phrase. I mean, whenever I do the (David) Letterman show, I, always get the ‘What’s My Beef?’ segment. On TV, you always have to have some kinda handle. Whereas in live shows, I don’t think it’s necessary. You hopefully let the material speak for itself.”
JAY LENO podcast excerpt: “If I was to put you in a movie theater and show you a Western, drama or love story from the 1920s, I don’t think you could sit through two hours of silent movies. You’d be going, ‘Geez, this is so ponderous and slow.’ Whereas, if I played a Charlie Chaplin or Keystone Cops, I think you would laugh just as loudly as people laughed in 1920. Funny is funny. Things that are funny are a constant.”
Leno, 36, has become a regular visitor to the Bay area during the past two years, drawing ever-larger crowds at the old Le Club and more recently at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
His late-blooming popularity – Leno debuted on the “Tonight Show” on March 2, 1977 – comes largely from regular spots with Letterman i on “Late Night.” It also earned him a special on Showtime “Jay Leno and the American Dream” – as well as profiles on “West 57th” and in People magazine.
The funny man even modeled a sweater last fall in GQ but demurs when asked about it, probably because he didn’t get to keep the sweater.
NBC also plans to build some late-night variety specials around him in the fall. [t won’t be a sitcom, however, as has been rumored.
“I would like to have the humor being more my sense of humor, as opposed to me being the next-door neighbor on ‘Who’s Got the Butter,’ or something like that,” Leno said.
If you keep up with Leno’s career there are bound to be a few familiar jokes in his routine at the Bayfront Center theater on Saturday night. On the other hand, there should be plenty of new observations, as well.
“It’s an evolutionary process,” he explained. “You’ just tend to drop jokes that aren’t funny anymore. For example, there were topical jokes that were big last year. Jokes about Reagan going to Bitburg were very popular. You can see why it falls by the wayside. Certain jokes you have, maybe about McDonalds and fast-food restaurants, those are reasonably timeless in a three- or four-year time frame. You could do those for a long time.”
A recent article in New York magazine wondered where disaster jokes – with black humor topics such as the explosion of space shuttle Challenger and Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosions come from. Leno was asked how he felt about such jokes.
“There’s a way to do it,” he said, and proceeded to give an example. “I always like to watch the experts speak on Ted Koppel (“ Nightline”). The nuclear experts say,’ Everything in life is a risk. Crossing the street is a risk-’ Yeah, but if I get hit by a car in California, they don’t tell people in Sweden not to eat vegetables.”
Still, Leno maintains a distance between what he’ll say on stage and off, saying that the jokes that are appropriate for one place probably are inappropriate for the other.
“When you say something in a mike, it’s magnified 100 times. You might say in conversation, ‘Oh, I wish this guy were dead.’ You’d say that to someone over dinner. You would never say it in in the newspaper or on the radio. You’re just expressing an opinion.
“On stage, you’re expressing an opinion, but because of the magnitude and the number of people you’re reaching, it tends to come across as fact,” he warned.
Leno said most attempts at black humor don’t make him laugh simply because they are merely variations on old, familiar jokes.
JAY LENO podcast excerpt: “I try not to have a hook phrase. I mean, whenever I do the (David) Letterman show, I, always get the ‘What’s My Beef?’ segment. On TV, you always have to have some kinda handle. Whereas in live shows, I don’t think it’s necessary. You hopefully let the material speak for itself.”
“It’s not that I have some wonderfully, morally superior sense of humor, it’s just that I’ve heard most of them in one form or another. I mean that’s an old Three-Mile Island joke. Before that, it was a something else joke. I’m sure Oppenheimer was telling that one on the Manhattan Project.”
In general, “there are no new jokes,” according to Leno, who said most jokes come from “the little guy” getting twisted by the system or being put through some adversity.
“That’s why comedy can remain fairly timeless,” he explained. “If I was to put you in a movie theater and show you a Western, drama or love story from the 1920s, I don’t think you could sit through two hours of silent movies. You’d be going, ‘Geez, this is so ponderous and slow.’ Whereas, if I played a Charlie Chaplin or Keystone Cops, I think you would laugh just as loudly as people laughed in 1920. Funny is funny. Things that are funny are a constant.”
A lot of attention has been paid to the number of road dates Leno plays – all 300 of them. It’s no big deal, he said.
“Comedy is not like music, where you have to do a sound check. If I have a show at a theater at 8 o’clock, I can show up at quarter to 8 and go, ‘Is the mike there?’ Yeah. ‘Got a glass of water for me?’ Yeah. That’s all I need.
“This is how you get to be good at something,” he said of the non-stop touring. “You gotta do the work. I don’t think I’ll be traveling this much when I’m 45 or 50, but I’m young now, I enjoy it, I might as well make it and sock it away while I can.
“Things are going good,” Leno mentioned, as if nobody has noticed. “Keep your fingers crossed.”