[This is the second of three parts in which M.E. is discussing the worlds of stand-up comedy and late night TV. In the first
part, Mark talked about how he first saw and became a fan of a young comic who, many said, would never get on The Tonight Show again.
The kid's name was Jay Leno and that's where we left off. By the way, all three parts of this were written about four months ago.]
Jay Leno was maybe one year out of balancing tires in Boston but he looked like he'd been telling jokes all his life.
"Professional" was a word that came to mind.
Someone once claimed that Danny Thomas's nightclub act could be diagrammed thusly: "Joke...song...joke... song...joke..." It
dawned on me that night that Leno's act, subjected to the same test, would come out: "Joke/joke/joke/joke/ joke/joke/joke..."
For a time, Leno was the best-kept secret in town. Others, most of them less-adept at pleasing crowds, passed him on the Comedy
Food Chain, getting talk show spots and HBO Specials and series. Undaunted, he pressed on, building his storehouse of material, honing it by
playing anywhere anyone would let him. Others may have been funnier; no one — but no one — outworked him.
I became a fan...and all the moreso when I started hearing stories about Leno. They fell into two categories...
There were the stories about Leno the Inhuman. He was so broke, he slept in his car. He was so devoted, he would drive
anywhere, do anything to get on and test his material. Another comic would do one club a night...two, tops. Leno would spend his last
dime on gas, criss-crossing the city, finally doing his eighth spot of the evening at 3 AM in front of six people. He was invincible: He could
have root canal at 5:00 and still go on and do forty minutes at 5:30. (I once heard another comic complain he couldn't perform because it was
three degrees too hot in the room. Leno could work in a tornado.)
Another story, possibly apocryphal: Leno was driving back and forth across the country when his car broke down. He calculated
he'd need three or four days to fix it but he only had fifty dollars to his name...hardly enough to buy food and lodging for that period. The
town had no comedy club but it had a bar where musicians played. Leno went in and tried to get a job for the week. "Sorry, no comedians,"
the manager told him. Leno (the story goes) took his last fifty bucks, slapped it down on the bar and said, "Put me on...and if I don't get a
standing ovation, you keep the money. If I do, you hire me for a week." The manager took the bet, Leno killed the crowd and he wound up
with a paying gig for the time it took him to get the car running again.
And then there were tales of Leno the Ethical. He was completely honest...never stole a joke, never knifed another comic.
There were anecdotes of other comics — guys who'd stolen unashamedly from Jay and others — receiving unexpected counsel and assistance
from him when they got into trouble or had an important audition. One night, sitting with a bunch of comedians, someone told a story of Leno
lying to steal a job from someone else. When he finished, all the other comics at the table — Jay's competitors — all said, almost
in unison, "Leno would never do that." If you've never been around comedians, you have no idea how incredible it is to have that kind of
I didn't know Jay well and I still don't. I wish I did. The five-or-so times we've met in two decades, I've always felt I
had to introduce myself by name. Those times he said, "Oh, sure, I remember you," I think he was just being polite but it's okay; my mother
does the same thing.
Still, I've seen the guy in action enough to believe that most of those stories are true. For example, one night at Budd
Friedman's Improv, Leno was scheduled as the fifth of five comics in a set, meaning that four guys would do fifteen minutes apiece and then he'd
close with a half-hour. Somehow, comedians #2, 3 and 4 never showed. #1 stretched as long as possible but, like many lesser comics, when
he got past his "set" fifteen minutes, the material got increasingly thin. The House Manager — whoever was watching the place for Budd
that evening — was fretting and panicking in the back...crazed until he heard the sound of Leno's motorcycle outside. He instantly darted
out, grabbed Jay off the bike and put him immediately to work: Leno mounted the stage and started his monologue while still peeling off his cycling
leathers, launching into a full hour of solid material. Not one joke missed. He finished the show to thunderous applause, then made a mad
dash for the Men's Room. It was that evening that I began to believe all those stories about Leno as Robo-Comic.
And if I ever questioned all those Mr. Nice Guy stories...well, consider one day outside Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas...a day so hot,
the Elvis Impersonators were getting crew-cuts. I was wandering up when I noticed a cab's radiator explode, shooting rusty water in every
direction. It was blocking traffic so the Doorman signaled for several bellhops to assist him in pushing it to one side, out of the way.
A couple of passers-by joined in to help push the car and one of them, sure enough, was Jay Leno...his name as Headliner visible in ten-foot letters
on the sign in the background. He not only helped push the car, he opened the hood and diagnosed a busted water pump or somesuch automotive
illness before heading in to get ready for his show.
A small gesture? Perhaps. But I'll bet you that when Sinatra played the big room here, he didn't stop and push any
From time to time, Budd Friedman would stage invitational seminars at his club, offering up advice to wanna-be stand-ups. He'd
invite them in for a Saturday afternoon and stock the dais with himself, some agents...and Leno. I "audited" one from the back and was
impressed with Leno's hands-on, practical advice; in ten minutes, he encapsulated every mistake I've personally known a comedian to make and told how
to avoid it. The Biggie was to be pointlessly competitive: "Never worry about anyone's career but your own," he said. "It'll just make
you crazy and you'll make the wrong moves. Concern yourself just with what's good for you and learn to ignore the guy who's less funny than you
are but getting better breaks."
A wonderful bit of advice. And one, I've found, that works as well for writers as stand-up comics. In my career, the
largest career-type mistakes I've made were always because I was paying too much attention to someone else's successes and not enough to my own.
Okay, so the guy is nice and ethical and funny. What's more, he works sans gimmicks: He performs without props or funny costumes
or catch-phrases. He doesn't even use so-called naughty words on stages where he could. (I have nothing against comics who use any kind
of language at all, just so long as it's one I speak. But spend An Evening at the [non-televised] Improv and then tell me that too many comics
aren't overusing the F-word as a means of goosing up tepid material.)
Leno doesn't use that or any other crutches. He doesn't have a "hook" like being the first Russian comedian or being
extraordinarily fat or slim or homely. He doesn't do dialects, he doesn't do characters, he doesn't do impressions apart from a lukewarm Elvis,
helped out by his own looks; he doesn't do anything but go out there and tell jokes.
That's all he's ever done. And, for years, he did it in the roughest possible place: On the road.
Remember I mentioned the successes of guys like Freddie Prinze and Gabe Kaplan? Please note that they (and others like them)
started as stand-up comics and their successes came when they got situation comedies and were able to stop being stand-up comics.
The goal of most stand-up comedians is not to be one any longer. Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen are now making more money with
their respective TV shows than they ever could have made doing stand-up...but I'll bet you the best thing about having hit shows for each of them is
this: They don't have to spend this week in a Holiday Inn in Jerkwater, Alabama, killing time during the day before going to do two sets at Yuk-Yuk's
Comedy Cafe each night.
If you're a stand-up, that's where the jobs are. You won't make much money hanging around L.A.; the Comedy Store and the Improv don't
pay that well. Going on the road pays well but it means frequent separation from your home and loved ones, a constant stream of Days Inn suites
and nothing to do all afternoon, waiting to do your act at Ho-Ho's and get out of town. It can be a dreary life: A comic friend once phoned me
out of boredom from Wichita and opened the call by moaning, "I'm sick of showering with little soaps."
It can be a rotten life. That's why it was so amazing when I heard this about Jay Leno: "He doesn't mind going on the
road." He is one of only two comics I ever heard that about; the other was David Brenner.
I heard that about Leno and then, that day at the Improv seminar, I heard him elaborate. He said something like, "Hey, if you're
gonna be a stand-up comic, be a stand-up comic. Don't make half an effort. Take every chance you have to get on stage and do it...even if
it means travelling, even if it means a little inconvenience. If you're going to do something, give it everything you've got."
I liked that...a lot. Like the advice about ignoring the successes of others, it's something that, I'd like to think, I've applied to
my own career. Or, at least, tried to apply.
As I walked home that day from the Improv, two thoughts hit me about this Leno guy: One was that he was doing everything right.
The other was that he wasn't a big star; at the time, he was still mainly on the road, playing the Comedy Cavern and the Comedy Closet and even the
Komedy Kitchen. (Another stand-up told me he'd ordered his agent never to book him into any club that spelled "comedy" with a "k." Leno
even played those places.)
It bothered me probably more than it should have. Like I said, I barely knew the guy...and I was also working on that policy of not
caring about anyone's career but my own. Still, it bugged me for the longest time that Jay Leno was not at the top of the business.
It took me a while but I figured out why: I'd read too many comic books.
Deep down, I really didn't care that much about Jay Leno; what bothered me was that he was reminding me that Show Business is not
— and never will be — a meritocracy.
A meritocracy is a system whereby everyone advances according to their skills and talents: The better you are, the higher you go.
There is some of that in Show Business, to be sure — just enough to be deceptive. You think that's what it takes because that's obviously
But then along comes a Leno — then slaving away, doing everything right in relative obscurity — or someone who's a Freak
Hit, doing it all wrong...and you tumble back to Earth. You're reminded that luck and timing and the whims of powerful people also figure into
it; that being in the Right Place at the Right Time can easily outweigh doing the Right Thing.
Intellectually, I know all this. And, most of the time, I try to balance my idealism with a controlling force of pragmatism.
Still, at times, it's comforting to see the Good Guys win...to believe that the best always rises to the top. Not every
moment...not even every month...but every time I saw Leno at the Improv or on TV, I'd think, "Gee, if there were any justice in the world, that guy
would be a big star."
Then things started to happen. That comedian from Indiana — the kid named Letterman — became a late night
smash...deservedly so. When David Letterman was starting out, Leno helped him out a lot with advice and material. Now, Dave brought Jay
onto his show as an almost-regular. Good for Dave's show, good for Jay's career. Leno hadn't done well when he'd been on The Tonight
Show with Johnny Carson but he found his voice with a younger audience in Letterman's guest chair.
NBC took note...so did Carson. When Joan Rivers left her job as Carson's Guest Host in a luckless attempt to compete with him,
the job was divided between Jay Leno and Garry Shandling. Then Shandling withdrew to devote his full energy to his situation comedy and Jay had
the desk to himself...on Carson's nights off, at least.
For the last twenty years, there had been talk of who would get the Tonight Show when Carson abdicated. There was always
one performer who, by virtue of guest-hosting, seemed to have the inside track. At one point, it was Bob Newhart; at other times, Jimmy Dean or
Joey Bishop. For a year or so there, had Carson quit, McLean Stevenson might have been the natural choice. Later, David Brenner seemed to
be heir apparent until Joan Rivers took over. Finally though, when The Day finally arrived...when this mad, high-stakes game of Musical (Host)
Chairs picked a winner, Jay Leno had the most prestigious job in the comedy business.
That's right: Jay Leno...the guy who was too nice to make it. Some of us could only smile and note that, sometimes, the Good Guys
Years ago, in a comic book called Hollywood Superstars, whose entire circulation consisted of artist Dan Spiegle and myself, I
wrote an article about Johnny Carson. I noted that Carson was renewing his Tonight Show contracts on an annual basis and, if he was
getting bored with it all, doing a good job of concealing it. I don't think it was boredom that caused him to announce his retirement a few
years later; I think it was the realization that the show and its approach had grown old...that if he wanted to stay behind the desk — and stay
in or around First Place — it was going to require a massive investment of new energy and retooling, competing with hosts half his age for an
audience half his age. Had he opted to hang in there and fight that fight, I wouldn't have put money against him.
But, to this long-time Carson-watcher, it seemed like he chose to follow those instincts that had always served him so well...the same
Sense of Good Timing that had prompted him to chop down the length of The Tonight Show (from ninety minutes to an hour) when he did, the same
intuitions he'd always used in deciding when to chuck a running gag or topic as passé.
I don't believe those stories that Carson was forced out by NBC or Jay Leno's Manager or anyone; at most, NBC weighed his costs versus
his ad revenues and stopped fighting so hard to get him to stay. My guess is that Johnny had seen too many older comedians — men he'd
perhaps once admired — who didn't know when to get off the stage; who soured the memory of their best work with an insistence on performing
when long past their prime. Far better, Johnny must have thought, to end it now — at thirty years and change — enjoy life without
that omnipresent Next Monologue to worry about...and slowly ascend to the role of Elder Statesman of Comedy. It won't be long, sad to say,
before Bob Hope, Milton Berle and George Burns are gone...and Johnny will be the undisputed holder of that title.
So Johnny gets his show business immortality (richly deserved) and Jay gets the best job in comedy. A happy ending? Not
quite. James Douglas Muir Leno didn't know it but the big struggle was just beginning...
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