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.To our ear, that portrait rang true.
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.”
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.