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People Top 5
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- November 30, 1987
- Vol. 28
- No. 22
Profile (Whew!) of a Funny Man
Club Owners Tossed Him Out, TV Execs Told Him He'd Never Make It. But Comedian Jay Leno Kept His Chin Up—Way, Way Up
But hey, you can't go by appearances or judge the Jaybird so quickly. Even his fifth-grade teacher knew that. His report card on Leno at 10: "If Jay spent as much time studying as he does trying to be a comedian, he'd be a big star."
Obviously this was a man who knew what he was talking about. Leno, 37, is the funny man of the moment. In September he became a permanent guest host on The Tonight Show, appearing most Monday nights. His first prime-time special, Jay Leno's Family Comedy Hour, airs on NBC on Thanksgiving Eve. Which means that this week more Americans will be seeing Jay Leno's face than at any other time in recorded history.
What a prospect. What a face.
The jutting, jumbo, Mount Rushmore chin. The goofy, wise-guy smirk. The quills for hair. The long, almost effeminate lashes. The eyes with the Stan Laurel droop, but as open and alert as those of a kid turned loose in F.A.O. Schwarz. Put it all together with the 6', 180-lb. body of a retired linebacker (Leno, in fact, was once offered a job as a comedian-wrestler), and what do you get? "His head looks like a crushed walnut," says Seinfeld. Or, says Letterman, "like some kind of cinder block that came out of the mold misshapen." His physiognomy, in fact, is written about so often that Leno has read some of his press clips on Carson's show: " 'Jay Leno, the anvil-faced comedian...' "
One thing that face is good for, however, is masking a lot of pain—the pain of a long grind, the pain of long obscurity. Yeah, yeah, he'd make fun of that sentiment, but while most of his contemporaries were working in the media centers of New York and Los Angeles, Leno was gigging in the sleaze clubs, college campuses, even the old-age homes of the hinterlands. And when some of his contemporaries' names had become TV-listing fixtures, Leno's name was still appearing under signs that flashed NUDE, NUDE, NUDE.
But as a throwback to vaudeville, Leno has a decided edge. Unlike any other comic of his generation, he has no cult following. His yucks in the wilderness have given him a catholic, middle-of-the-road appeal. On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, where he's going to play the Sands, young fans greet Leno with unceremonious shouts of "Yo! Hey! How you doin'?" like he's a fellow member of the plumbers' union. Older women are just as chummy. "They feel," says Leno's wife, Mavis, "that Jay is the last good son in America."
His humor is bemused and observational, the kind that sucks the absurdity out of any situation. If Will Rogers had lived through the '60s, 70s and '80s, he'd be Jay Leno. "See what Arco has done?" Leno asks his audience. "They've combined the all-night mini-market with the 24-hour gas station to try to give you a one-stop robbery center. This way criminals don't have to drive around all night wasting gas. You pull in at 9:15, shoot the attendant and you're in bed by 11." Leno on the Rambo syndrome? "Stallone and Schwarzenegger have opened up the acting profession to a lot of people who couldn't get into it when speech was a major requirement." Good works? "Yeah, I read that Nancy Reagan was at the Beverly Hills Hotel to accept her Humanitarian of the Year award. I'm glad she beat out that conniving bitch Mother Teresa."
The search for absurdity goes on all the time, even when Leno isn't performing. He suddenly jumps up from the chair in his living room. "I've got to show you this old magazine I just bought," he squeals from the next room. "It's got an article by Liberace called 'What I Want in a Woman.' "
Minutes later Leno produces another oddity for inspection. It's an old scrapbook containing promotional posters of the people he once performed with, vaudeville holdovers like the Personable Yodeling Sensation and a dog act called the Cold Nosed Five. There are 8x10 glossies of Leno, too. He has big sideburns and glasses, looking very '70s, like a remnant of the old Dating Game. "This is almost too embarrassing," Leno says as he flips the pages wide-eyed, giving the impression that it's been a while since he's gone through this stuff. "Yeah," he murmurs, "it was a long haul."
The youngest of two children (his brother, Patrick, 47, is a lawyer), James Douglas Muir Leno was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., and grew up in Andover, Mass. His mother, Catherine, is a housewife; his father, Angelo, an insurance salesman who was always tapped to tell a joke or two at conventions. Leno's childhood pastimes: flushing tennis balls down toilets, cramming complacent dogs into school lockers and blowing up urinals with cherry bombs. "But these were not career moves," he insists. "I just assumed I'd always be some sort of gregarious salesman who knew a joke to emcee birthday parties." Called Jay since grade school, Leno amended his Willy Loman ambition one fateful day during a class discussion of Robin Hood: "The teacher said, 'You know, people were very cruel back then. They killed people by boiling them in oil.' " Little Jay raised his hand and said—here, folks, Leno's first ad-lib—"But they couldn't boil Tuck. He was a friar." Ba dum.
"That was the first time I think I ever told a joke-joke, a grown-up joke," says Leno. "And I remember thinking, 'Hmmm, that's an interesting reaction.' And since then I've always been able to remember everything I said, good or bad, and the reaction it got. I was never particularly good at remembering names or spelling or adding, but I could always remember what made people laugh."
After graduating from Boston's Emerson College with a degree in speech therapy, Leno decided to talk funny for a living. While comedy clubs today are almost as ubiquitous as the golden arches, early '70s Boston offered only one kind of place to get a stand-up start—strip joints like the Teddy Bear Lounge, the Kit Kat club and the Mineshaft. "I thought this was great, this was show business," says Leno. "I was making $25 a night, and everybody else I knew was waiting tables."
Of course a guy can't go on working peel parlors forever; he has to think of his future. Leno moved on to be the opening act at a brothel, a joke teller on carnival midways and the chief entertainment at birthday parties in homes for the aged. He worked at one club that didn't have enough letters to spell his name on the marquee. "So the next day," says Leno, "I was known as the talented Mr. No."
Working by day as a Rolls-Royce mechanic, Leno finally got his night career in third gear. He began performing at jazz clubs in front of audiences with discernible vital signs and low alcohol levels. He would drive to New York to work gratis at clubs like the Improvisation and the Bitter End. The comics he met at the time—Robert Klein, Freddie Prinze and David Brenner—persuaded Leno to move to the city and work at comedy full-time. Leno's stay in the Big Apple lasted on and off from 1971 to 1975. Sitting at home one night, he was watching a comedian give a lukewarm performance on The Tonight Show. Convinced that he could do better, Leno walked out of his apartment and caught an early a.m. flight to L.A.
"When I landed I hitched a ride to the Sunset Strip," he recalls. "Then I walked and walked to the Comedy Store and hung out until it opened. I went on that night, and luckily they liked me. You didn't get paid there, but it was fun. I like to look upon those first few months as the romantic period."
Romance, in this case, consisted of spending more than one night in the backseat of the '55 Buick Roadmaster that Leno still owns and refers to as "Mr. Buick, a car so big it seats seven—for dinner."
Slowly, surely, Leno became a main act at the Comedy Store and the Improv; he also fell in with a crowd that included Jimmy Walker, Elayne Boosler and David Letterman, whose show is credited with injecting Leno into mainstream America. "The first time I saw Jay, he was head and shoulders above anybody else," remembers Letterman. "He was a huge influence on me. I patterned much of what I did on what I saw him do. It's no surprise to any of us that he's gotten so successful. I think everybody was surprised that it took him a little longer. The first night I saw him, I thought the next day he was going to be a huge star."
Not quite. Told he would have no career in TV because of his looks ("They said I was too frightening for children"), Leno continued with the slow build, making appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show, where he first showed his face in 1977.
It was just about this time that Leno met Mavis Nicholson, a struggling scriptwriter who hung out at the Comedy Store. Talk about meeting cute: Jay was heading to the men's room after he finished his act, and Mavis was heading for the ladies' room. "And when I came out," she says, "he was standing there. He said, 'Say, you were in the front row.' And I said, 'Yeah, that was me,' and breezed right by." The two met officially the next week at the Improv through friends.
"I wasn't very good at dating," admits Leno. "I don't drink. I never have. [Leno also avoids all drugs, including aspirin.] I remember once Mavis wanted a drink, and I said, 'Look, let me give you the money, and you can buy a blouse or something. I don't want to buy you a drink.' And so I gave her $35 and she bought a blouse."
"I can't tell you how absolutely peculiar I thought that was," laughs Mavis, 38. They made an odd mix—West Coast feminist intellectual and East Coast working-class guy. "I always had this idea that I would never get married," says Mavis, who was raised in L.A. "It was a big thing with me, part of my vehement feminism. But with Jay, I began to realize that this was the first time I was ever with someone where I had a perfect, calm sense of having arrived at my destination."
Was his proposal romantic? As Leno recalls it, "I think I said, 'Honey, I've got this insurance plan....' "
Married in 1980, the Lenos live in a two-story, stone-and-shingle, 12-room house in Beverly Hills, with three garages to hold Jay's 18 motorcycles and six cars. The couple say they don't want children, primarily because of Jay's demanding schedule. In addition to his weekly Tonight Show job and occasional Letterman appearances, he's making Doritos tortilla chip commercials and writing an autobiographical book for Simon and Schuster, titled Road Stories. He's also completed a film, Collision Course, a comedy due out in February, and is signed for two more movies. Then there are the 200 live shows he does each year, at $15,000 per. "I honestly get a kick out of getting the checks with all those zeros," says the workingman's millionaire.
Sitting at home, pipe in hand, Leno remembers all the people who threw him out on his lantern jaw over the years, but he isn't stirring any bitter embers. "What he always told me," says Mavis, "was, 'They're not going to let me in the front door, so I'm just going to have to take a longer way and go around the back.' And that's exactly what he did."
"I didn't come into town and rocket past everyone," says Leno, "but if you keep doing what you're supposed to do, eventually things will come together. All I've ever done is work a lot and try to do the stuff that I think the audience finds funny. And I'll keep on doing it: If Yul Brynner could do The King and I for 30 years, I can handle this. It's pretty basic: I just travel the country and identify the absurd." Long may he rave.
- Michael Alexander.
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