Doing Stand-Up in the Sand, Comedian Jay Leno Scores a Direct Hit in Saudi Arabia

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Over Thanksgiving weekend, comedian and Tonight Show guest host Jay Leno flew to Saudi Arabia to boost the spirits of frontline troops. He was not the first Hollywood visitor to the desert. Comedian Steve Martin and his wife, Victoria Tennant, went there in October. But partially in deference to the Saudis, who prohibit public entertainment, the military did not allow the wild and crazy guy to put on shows. He only shook hands and mingled with soldiers. Plans for Leno's shows were also scrapped after authorities deemed that gathering audiences of soldiers could be a security risk. But Leno had his own agenda. Helicoptered to 20 remote sites in a four-day sojourn, Leno decided to give impromptu shows from tanks and trucks to crowds of 20 to 250 soldiers. As told to reporter Michael Alexander, this is his exclusive account of a trip that was as uplifting for him as it was for the troops.

When the USO called me in August to see if I was interested, I said sure. I can't say that my country has asked me to do a whole lot other than tell jokes, ride motorcycles and generally act silly.

It's a totally different culture over there. When I go to a foreign country, I go out of my way to be friendly. So I'd go down the street in Riyadh, the capital, and smile and say hi to women wearing veils. They'd look away, and I realized that this was equivalent to making a pass at them. Women aren't allowed to vote or drive cars. They aren't allowed at the pool in the hotel, and when you go to some restaurants with a woman—who has to be your wife—they put a screen around your table. My wife, Mavis, was told not to roll up her shirt sleeves and to keep her top button buttoned. You're a guest in their country so you respect the customs, but it made no sense to me. Someone I know made the analogy to South Africa: "If it were blacks they were treating this way instead of women, everyone would be up in arms." It doesn't seem like much fun for the men either. They're not off downtown gambling and going to topless bars. Some of them did recognize me from The Tonight Show, which they see at 11:30 in the morning. They'd point at me and say, "You know Tom Selleck?"

The desert would get up to 100°F, 110°. I was wearing fatigues so I was pretty comfortable, but the hard part to get used to is the great expanse of desert. We'd fly for three hours in a helicopter and see nothing but rolling hills of white sand and an occasional oasis, like one of those bad Casbah movies. The sand is like fine powder and gets into everything. When I brushed my teeth, I spit out sand. Finally, in the middle of nowhere, we'd see a group of tanks. When a helicopter lands, the soldiers think mail is being delivered and they all gather around.

The USO said I should just get out, shake hands and walk around. But all the guys do is walk around all day; they don't want to see another guy walking around. You have to give them something. So I stood up on a tank and started to tell some jokes. In a lot of ways it was like going back to my start in show business, when I'd go into a bar and just stand up and start talking. This is what I envision show business was like in the 12th century. You just go from caravan to caravan, stand on something, start talking and hope a crowd gathers. The one advantage to this was these guys really had nothing else to do.

My concern was not to be some kind of rabble-rouser, some flag-waving war booster, so I didn't do any Arab-bashing jokes or Muslim-religion jokes—that's not my job. I had some dirty jokes prepared, but the guys didn't seem to want that, which was fine with me. I did what I usually do: talk about my folks, about TV shows, Milli Vanilli. These soldiers are kids after all, and that's what they're interested in. I'd get one of the prepackaged meals the guys get and eat a little and say, "Boy, this stuff is delicious. What is this, Thanksgiving dinner? I can't believe you guys are complaining." Then they'd start laughing and throw spoons at me. I only used a couple of Saddam Hussein jokes, like, "I saw Hussein on TV, and I thought, 'Boy, Noriega's face has cleared up.' " Mavis got most of the attention. These guys hadn't seen a woman out of uniform in 90 days. I'd be struggling to crawl out of a tank, and eight soldiers would be saying, "Can I help you, Mrs. Leno?"

I'd just seen The Civil War on PBS. I was very moved seeing those kids who were 17 years old with guns, and then I'd look out at the sand from this tank in the middle of the desert and see the same kids: The uniform is different, but they're holding guns bigger than they are. It really hit me. There are a few soldiers who look like men—three-day stubble, big workout arms, guys who look like Sergeant Rock. But then you have these kids, it's the same young faces looking at you. Mavis said, "Twenty years ago I'd have been concerned about these guys' girlfriends. Now I'm concerned about their moms." The weapons are more sophisticated now, but what's worse? A bayonet at Gettysburg with no medical attention or gassed in Saudi Arabia with a chemical weapon? One is as bad as the other.

I didn't hear anybody talking with a sort of gung ho, let's-kill-'em attitude. I think it's different from Vietnam. Most of the guys were really concerned about how the Saudis treat women. They thought it was genuinely unfair. Twenty years ago people would probably have said, "So what?" Wives and girlfriends, by the way, shouldn't worry that their guys are running around with women over there. There isn't much chance of that! Another thing that was nice to see was men and women of all races and walks of life hanging out together.

The soldiers gave me about 200 names of all these parents. I've been calling them up and saying, like, "I saw Timmy." And they go, "Where was he? How's he doing?" People are so happy that you call, you feel good about it. I don't know what's going to happen eventually, but while I was there, I would really look at each person I met and try to remember his face. I can't remember everyone, but I was thinking, "Gee, is one of these kids going to get killed?" It would be great fun for me, 15 years from now, to have one of those people come up to me in Vegas and say, "Hey, remember me? I was the guy in the third row in the tank battalion." I would love to be able to remember them, because I'd like to see them all again.

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