Supplemental: Jay Leno and the average person!

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2014

An instructive profile:
Long ago, in October 1986, we spent a few hours with Jay Leno.

We were performing with two friends at the Comic Strip in Fort Lauderdale. At the time, Jay was the king of the comedy clubs. He was in town for one of his first comedy concerts, in a small Fort Lauderdale venue.

Our friends were also friends with Jay. We trouped over to his hotel when our late show was over and spent a few hours talking.

According to Nexis, the date in question was 10/25/85. Possibly 10/26.

Starting in 1982, we spent a lot of time talking to a lot of comedians. We went to the quarry with Rita Rudner. Roseanne Barr was in town for a week. We spent one New Year’s Eve with Bill Maher, another with the delightfully teen-aged Martin Lawrence.

We bought Paula Poundstone her Mickey Mouse clock, right in that Disney store when she had spotted it in Raleigh.

Our take-away from that evening with Jay may seem a bit surprising, given the way he later came to be seen by some. Here it is:

By light years, Jay was the funniest comedian we ever spent time talking with. On that evening, Jay was just exceptionally funny.

The key phrase there: “By light years.”

Jay was extremely funny that night, especially telling his tales about the colorfully-managed [name of venue withheld]. He was also a very nice person. This brings us to the profile of Jay in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Later this week, Jay will be getting the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize. We were struck by the profile’s ruminations on Jay and “regular people.”

The Post’s Geoff Edgers watched Jay do a show at a surprisingly small venue in Lancaster, Pa. The theater had 1600 seats:
EDGERS (10/10/14): Over his career, Leno has certainly reached a wide audience, particularly the mainstream market known as Middle America. This skill made Leno the commercial king of late night. It also turned him into a punching bag.

[...]

Jay Leno doesn’t act like a star. He travels alone, carrying his own garment bag with his suit. In his typical uniform—denim shirt and jeans—he walks into the closest restaurant in Lancaster, orders a rack of ribs and fills a plastic cup with soda from a self-serve dispenser.

He is approachable and warm to all, partly because that’s just his nature.

Presenters at Leno gigs don’t get riders demanding chilled San Pellegrino or bouncers guarding the green room. One time, Leno says, he was so low-key with a booker, he showed up to find no microphone. “You said you didn’t need anything,” Leno remembers being told, adding that he did the show unamplified.

“Show business is not that hard,” Leno says backstage in Lancaster. “People make it difficult. I don’t want to be a pain in the ass.”

[...]

He’s asked about the crowd.

“It doesn’t get any more Middle America than that,” he said. “I don’t quite get people who have contempt for Middle America.
A crowd’s a crowd.”

Outside, he embraces his fans. Then, a stagehand drives him to the tiny, regional airport. In the car, Leno talks about his mother and her prudish nature. Her refusal to ever again watch Orson Bean after the actor appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and talked about having sex with his wife. He raves about what he considers “the best film ever made about show business,” 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd,” with Andy Griffith’s portrayal of a drifter turned television sensation.

He sadly mentions Lindsay Lohan’s self-destructive behavior and then praises actress Elle Fanning. She always sent him a thank-you note after an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”

As the car approaches the airport gate, Leno’s asked about the world he operated in for decades, even if he never felt quite part of it.

“I enjoy observing it. I don’t really want to live it. You know, showbiz is like champagne. If you drink it every day, you become a [expletive] alcoholic. I go to my garage and I work. You talk to regular people.”
To our ear, that portrait rang true.

According to Edgers, Jay’s ability to talk to Middle America made him the king of late night.

“You talk to regular people?” It seems to us that there is some good political advice lurking there.

39 comments:

  1. Presidential Speeches Were Once College-Level Rhetoric—Now They're for Sixth-Graders

    Are the presidents dumbing down? Or are their speechwriters smartening up?

    See http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/10/have-presidential-speeches-gotten-less-sophisticated-over-time/381410/

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  2. Jay is a nice guy, but so is Letterman. I hated to see them at odds over the tonight show. But that wasn't their fault. Corporate dweebs like Congress call the shots. Sad.

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  3. Everything I've ever read about Leno said he was a great stand-up in the 70's and 80's. Obviously don't know him personally, but he could well be the nicest guy in the world.

    But if you are going to see right through Meridith Veriera and Russert's "I'm a regular person just like you" act, then you can't just buy the same exact stagecraft when it comes to Leno. He could be an extremely down to earth person who talks to "regular" people all the time. But that is still brand-building, and it always has been.

    And yes, there is plenty of good political advice in talking to "regular" people. Just don't sell it in the form of self-serving fairy tales.

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    Replies
    1. What if there is nothing to see through because for Leno being a regular person isn't an act (or an affectation)?

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    2. Jay is the real deal.

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    3. Excellent point, but the difference is that Bob spent time with Leno some 28 or 28 years ago. He has never told us of palling around with either Vieira or Russert.

      Thus, it is much easier to judge negatively and make broad assumptions about the character of people you've never met.

      Meanwhile, regular guy Jay Leno relaxes by working in his garage. No doubt, tinkering around on one of the 90 motorcycles or 100 cars he owns, just like regular folk.

      Of course, this isn't to say that Leno is not a great guy. It is very possible to be extremely wealthy and a regular person at the same time.

      But this notion often escapes Somerby, especially when it comes to people he's never met.

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    4. Leno doesn't report news and he hasn't presented a campaign portraying himself as just folks. It doesn't matter whether his millions have put him out of touch.

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  4. Once while traveling down the 101 in the Valley, we and the kids came up on a Stanley Steamer with Leno in the drivers seat with a mechanic in tow. We honked and Leno with goggles and driving suit honked his locomotive whistle. The kids (and us) were thrilled. He is a regular guy.

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    Replies
    1. Yep. An arrogant celebrity driving a Stanley Steamer down the 101 would have flipped you off.

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  5. You spent a few ours with Leno in 10/86, Nexis says it was 10/85. If Bob were to read this piece, all he'd talk about would be this discrepancy.

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    Replies
    1. It was 1986. The night of October 25, or the early morning of October 26.

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    2. The average person thinks Nexis would be OK if they ever buy a Jap car.

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    3. This is the kind of joke Bill Maher makes and then he says, I kid the Japanese (or The Average People), as if that makes it OK to stereotype and say bigoted things, as long as it is a joke. He is a strong proponent of the idea that comedians can say any racist thing they want because humor.

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  6. ."Our country has come a long way: first we had George Washington, who couldn't tell a lie. Then we had Bill Clinton, who couldn't tell the truth. And now we have Al Gore, who can't tell the difference..."
    Jay Leno

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    Replies
    1. It was a joke.

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    2. Conan is still making sex jokes about Bill Clinton. It's easy.

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  7. I had a unusual,brief encounter with Leno about twelve years ago. I had some time to kill on a Saturday morning arriving early in Burbank for a dental appointment. Stopped into a bookstore called Auto Books-Aero Books (still around and a fascinating place). Was walking around a glass display that had beautiful museum quality miniatures of classic cars. He was doing the same from the opposite direction and next thing I know I'm waken from my daydream with a startled Jay Leno standing virtually face to face. I was rattled and I don't rattle easily. Not meant as a cheap shot but I think it was his head, it's scary big, big as a good-sized watermelon. That and I think he has the presence of a guy who's performed on stage countless times. I think that is a real, and in part a developed trait. I've met and had business with a number of celebrities. Only Leno and maybe one other had any kind of impact.

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  8. OMB (Schmoozing with the King of Comedy Kings and the OTB)

    Considering what you've read above, considering some of BOB's statements about people jumping off buildings rather than covering black kids, considering that BOB wrote this in the last post:

    "how on earth could any editor have chosen that photograph"

    we invite you to look at the photographs of BOB's average man's audience and ask if those kids in the VOX photo don't look suspiciously like the grandchildren of Leno's Lancaster audience.

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    Replies
    1. Go away you slimy turd.

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    2. Well, the second wave has hit this morning we see.

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  9. Blind spot MMMUUUCHHHH???????

    Was anyone more asinine it beating Monicagate to death than Jay Leno? "The Tonight Show" always had a rightward slant, which Jay kept going with shameless pimping of Gov. Arnold. The less said about how he
    wrecked his own reputation by sticking it to Conan the better.
    People get weirdly sentimental about comics they like. We have just held our tongues through the canonization of one of the single worst human beings who ever walked the face of the earth, because She was a sometimes amusing insult comic. So one unqualified kudos to Jay: he kept her off the show. Beyond that, I always though Jay was at his funniest as a panel guest on Dave.

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  10. “You talk to regular people?” It seems to us that there is some good political advice lurking there."

    This was the point of Somerby's article -- not that Leno is a great guy but that his humility put him in touch with everyday people. Reasoning by analogy, as he often does, Somerby was suggesting that politicians should spend more time talking with voters, not let their millions and their political positions insulate them from the people they represent.

    In what universe are liberals permitted to only admire other people with left-leaning opinions?

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    Replies
    1. I think the point is not just politicians talking to voters, but liberals in general talking to "common folk" in non condescending ways, and finding common ground that does indeed exist. Sadly liberals have a reputation for being self righteous, and it is frequently well earned.

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    2. Sadly commenters like @ 11:35 & 11:55 earn a reputation for dropping the "L" bomb every now and again. That is what attracts them to the hypocritcal little world of TDH.

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    3. I'd like so see liberals do better politically. That involves winning people over, not looking down their noses at them. A little bit of liberal self awareness would go a long way in that regard.

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    4. One way for liberals to do better politically is loudly denounce the baseless conservative stereotype that they are aloof and condescending.

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    5. One way to "loudly denounce" would be to demonstrate through actions that they are not aloof and condescending by being less aloof and condescending.

      I thought Affleck was majorly condescending on Maher's show. Mocking people for their clothes, their accents, their beliefs is also condescending -- as when the voters of West Virginia were called "low information" voters because they went for Hillary instead of Obama, or when pundits count the number of buttons on a politician's suit coat in order to portray him as out of style or too much in style.

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    6. 1:35: your first paragraph is classic doublespeak. Your second seems to consist of the utterings of the little cartoon birds fluttering around your head.

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  11. I liked Leno in the 70s. He had a curly perm and a youthfully edgy attitude in those days. I remember a routine he did on Merv Griffin about having a degree in philosophy (really?). "What do you do with it?" he asked. "I set up a little philosophy stand on the front porch. Somebody would walk up, and I'd say, 'Life's a Twinkie. That'll be five bucks." Very funny the way he told it in kind of an angry-young-man style.
    He appeared on Letterman's show in 1984 and they yucked it up like two very funny pals you'd like to eavesdrop on. Dave had just done a Playboy interview, and Leno was ragging him over his association with such a sexist rag. Then he pulled up this phony Ms. cover showing him and then VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro waving triumphantly to a rapturous p.c. crowd with the headline: "Jay Leno: "Women Are Our Equals." I laughed till my sides hurt.

    Then I suppose he discovered regular folk and decided they were a lot easier to get laughs from.

    I thought I was regular folk. But comedians (and sitcoms) begin to lose me when I start guessing their punch lines. Maybe it's age, but I'm been guessing more and more of them as times plods on, and Leno has long been one of the easiest to guess.


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    1. I think there was a point where Leno stopped writing his own material. If you have to come up with a new monologue every night, you (and your writers) pluck the low hanging fruit. He was never to my taste, even in the 80's, but I dislike Letterman too. I like Emo Phillips but Leno has to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, so you can't blame him for seeking the lowest common denominator in his humor. The cars are his reward for abandoning more personal expression, I would imagine.

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  12. Good post. Some were so determined to use the late night TVwars to identify their level of ironic cool they forgot Leno is the best of them both as a comic and ratings generator.

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  13. I thiNk Leno is a very funny guy. He also seems like a very nice guy. A number of fellow celebrities, however, think he's a hypocrite and a back stabber. My vripe with Leno is that when he took over for Carson he did badly at first and for quite awhile in the ratings. Then he literally started stealing and ripping off bits and parodies from Letterman. Admittedly, he did some of them better than Letterman, but they were still blatant rip offs. Only then did Leno start rising in the ratings. I used to sit there and chuckle to myself as Leno did Letterman's bits and claimed them s his own. There may be some good political advice lurking there as well.

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