So Jay and I are just shootin’ the shit, ya know?
Rewinding time, I mention New Rochelle, the New York ’burb north of the Bronx along the Long Island Sound that I know well—and where Jay Leno was born.
“Ever go to Leno’s Clam Bar?” he asks, delighted at our shared reference. “That’s my cousin. They’ve had the place 40, 50 years.”
Hell, yeah. That joint—less a restaurant than a grub shack out of a Frankie & Annette flick—is nosh-time nirvana (and a nutritionist’s nightmare), specializing in burgers cooked in enough grease to shame a can of Valvoline. You have to catch them before they slip-slide off Kaiser rolls piled high and deep with fried onions and accompanied by corn on the cob swimming in so much butter, your arteries harden the moment you place the order.
Yet to devoted regulars, “Leno’s Clam Bar” (they served clams too, but who cared?) was just a sign atop the dilapidated roof. We knew it as “Greasy Nick’s.” We chalked it up to the cuisine. “Yeah, it was just one of those nicknames,” he says. “I don’t know how it got there.”
That’s one reason I like Jay Leno—his family owns a place nicknamed Greasy Nick’s. Check out another, elicited when asked if he’d like one of those Vegas “residencies” we hand out like candy to Strip stars.
“You don’t want anything with your name on it, like The Jay Leno Theater. I don’t fault anybody who does it, but there’s a sense of self-importance there,” says 64-year-old Leno, who returns to the Mirage’s Terry Fator Theatre (no offense, Terry) November 21-22.
More reasons for admiration:
“It’s amusing to me when a comedian does a ‘one-man show,’” he says. “You have a lamp onstage and a chair and suddenly it’s a one-man show? It’s your fucking act! Same one you’ve done for 20 years. It’s also the reason I don’t do HBO specials or put out records. It’s my show. If you want to see it, I’ll come do it for you. (Did PG-Jay say “fucking”? Awwriiight!)
Also, as host, Leno removed “starring” in The Tonight Show title before the host’s name, opting for “with” when assuming the mantle from Johnny Carson in 1992. (Current host Jimmy Fallon reinstated “starring”).
Post-Tonight, Leno’s riding a mini-resurgence. On top of his 100-plus stand-up gigs this year, next year CNBC will debut the weekly Jay Leno’s Garage, based on his Web series focusing on his automotive passions. On December 19, he’ll be the final guest on Craig Ferguson’s last Late Late Show.
Last month, Leno pocketed the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, bestowed in a star-studded, Kennedy Center salute taped for broadcast Sunday night on PBS. And earlier this month, he made a gracious return to Tonight as a guest, certainly reveling in his host-emeritus status, but also performing a routine, like any guest comedian.
Because Jay Leno is something better than the critic’s darling he’s never been. He’s a working-man’s star.
Twenty years have passed since I last interviewed Leno—two years into his Tonight run, and at a difficult career moment, when New York Times writer Bill Carter’s book, The Night Shift was published. That best-seller painted Leno as an insecure, second-choice successor to Carson. Despite losing the gig, David Letterman was portrayed as a dignified hero, winning his own CBS show and the Carson stamp of late-night approval. Leno was left beaten up and humiliated. (Though he admits to the book’s best sight gag—hiding in a closet, eavesdropping on a conference call between the NBC brass.)
Back then he was amiable but tense, trying to dismiss it as ego-fueled show-biz absurdity (which it was, but immensely readable). Now—after departing the franchise as ratings king—he’s supremely relaxed. And amiable.
“I did it for 22 years and it was great, but at some point it becomes diminishing returns. Show business is like champagne. If you drink it every day, you become an alcoholic,” Leno says. “And when I did The Tonight Show, I’d fly to Vegas, do my show, the plane waits, I’d come back and write 14 minutes worth of new jokes. Now I can go to one of the comedy clubs, meet the new guys or any of the guys like Brad Garrett or Carrot Top. Just have fun, like the old days.”
Leno earned that fun.
Consider it partial compensation for being one of TV’s most picked-on and picked-apart personalities. Columnists spilled reservoirs of ink—coated in condescension and derision—trying to discover “what makes Jay tick” behind that big-chinned joviality. Coastal critics turned the hard-working, vacation-spurning Leno’s appeal to the catchall “middle-America” demographic into an implication of failure. Sniffing at him as if he’d peed in their cocktail glasses, they penned peevish columns bemoaning viewers’ preference for him over Letterman.
“I probably got beat up a lot because I didn’t fight back, but my feeling is: It’s not a DUI, you’re not cheating on your wife, it’s not cocaine, it didn’t hurt my wife or my family, and if you’re on TV, you’re already winning,” Leno says.
“Besides, when I walk out, people just want to hear a joke. I tell young comedians, ‘Never create anything bigger than your act. If you’re known as the angry guy, you’re not the funny guy anymore.’ I remember as a kid seeing Mort Sahl, who I loved. But for an hour he spoke about the Kennedy assassination. It’s not what I paid to see and I never went to see him again.”
Brilliant though he was, Sahl couldn’t have been one-tenth the Tonight host that Leno was. Yet one critic, with Leno in the twilight of his run, referred to him as a “place-holder” host in Tonight history. Wise men refer to this as bullshit.
No one is a 22-year place-holder. You last that long—winning all the way—because you’re good. Because viewers like you. Because even though Tonight made him a one-percenter, Leno seemed willing to tell fellow one-percenters to shove it, as when he characterized the ratings battle with Letterman as “millionaires arguing at midnight” in 1993.
“I also tell young performers, ‘The reason show business pays a lot of money is that sooner or later you’re going to get screwed, but you’ll still have a big pile of money,’” he says. “Most people who get screwed don’t get any money. Most people, after working 20 years, at Christmastime they get the three flavors of popcorn in a big tin.”
Was I—a TV critic during the Johnny-to-Jay handoff—a 100 percent Leno booster? No. Never did he evolve into a high-grade interviewer (with notable exceptions like the Hugh Grant episode). Sometimes his pummeling of punch lines, shouting “Yeah! Yeah!” and “Ya know? Ya know?” to egg on audience laughter, grew annoying.
Earlier this year, though, I caught long-form Leno at the Mirage, delving into extended, leisurely-paced comic arcs—a hilarious reminder of his comedic craftsmanship, and why he’s iconic to a generation of seasoned comedians (Jerry Seinfeld calls Leno “my idol”). Compared to the rat-a-tat Leno of Tonight monologues, under the gun of everyday events, it was a revelation.
“The fun thing about being on the road is you try out a joke on Monday, and almost get it, and then you can work on it more on Tuesday,” he says.
“Now when a comedian walks onto a late-night show, if they don’t get a laugh in the first 10 seconds, they go, ‘He’s bombing!’ Well let the guy finish, will ya? Jesus! They edit the comedian literally to the punch line so you don’t get any growth to the joke, there’s no build-up, everything is in your face. When you watch an old master like Bob Newhart, he’ll take a few minutes and set the stage. You’re smiling along the way, and it catches you laughing when you get to the punch line. That’s what’s fun about stand-up.”
Eventually, we all learn no one is exactly as they seem, Leno included. Realists know there’s no such thing as “what you see is what you get”—a sunny, simplistic description that avoids our complexities. Ambitions, jealousies, working the system—they suffuse every office in the land. Few workplaces are as big, though—and public—as network television. Certainly the 2010 Conan O’Brien imbroglio—when Leno returned from his prime-time flop to replace his own replacement—still begs questions about the principals’ behavior. (For more on that, read Carter’s follow-up book, The War for Late Night.)
Similar aspersions, though, can periodically be cast on all of us at our own jobs.
Yet basic decency—an overall sense of someone’s good heart and head-on-straight outlook—is fairly easy to recognize. So it is to me regarding Jay Leno. Being the average guy’s TV star is a good way to irritate the elites, which in turn is a great way to tickle the masses.
One day, perhaps he and I can clog our arteries together over paper plates soaked through with butter and grease as stray kernels of corn and onions dribble down our chins (in Jay’s case, a much longer journey down).
Where? We both know just the joint.
10 p.m. Nov. 21-22, Terry Fator Theatre at the Mirage, $60-$80, 702-792-7777, Mirage.com.
JAY LENO: THE MARK TWAIN PRIZE
8 p.m. November 23, KLVX-TV Channel 10.