Jay Leno: 'Tonight' Was About 'Trying To Get Johnny To Laugh'
In 1992, when Jay Leno took over from Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, he was already a familiar presence, having served as one of Carson's regular substitute hosts. Despite that experience, Leno's first few years on Tonight were rocky.
"When he started, when he was up against Letterman, Letterman beat him for the first couple of years," critic David Bianculli tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "But once Leno came ahead, he was unstoppable. He never lost that audience."
Leno had a long, successful run on Tonight, but in May 2009 he left to start his own prime-time program, The Jay Leno Show, also on NBC. That show was canceled after just a few months — and in a controversial move, Leno returned to Tonight, displacing new host Conan O'Brien.
In February 2014, Leno will step down for the second time as host of Tonight. Gross and Bianculli listen back to Leno's 1996 Fresh Air interview.
On doing stand-up in a strip club before comedy clubs became prevalent
"When I would play strip clubs, they wouldn't laugh or applaud or do anything. It gave you the confidence just to stand on stage because the people weren't paying attention to me anyway.
"There's a story in [my] book about playing this club called The Mine Shaft, where — it was in Minnesota — people would pay $5 to get in, and then for another $5 the customers would get a miner's hat with a light on it. Now, there were no lights in the club, it was just a big empty building. And the women would come out and dance, and of course the guys would have lights on their heads and would look at whatever part of the woman they wanted to look at with the light, and I would just be standing in the darkness telling jokes. 'Hi everybody, howya doin'?' And occasionally somebody would look over at me, and I couldn't even look at them because they had the bright light on their heads — so if they looked at me, ow, it burned my eye. I had to look away. So most of the time, for the whole week, I was just standing in darkness while guys looked at these women with miner's hats on."
On the comedians who inspired him
"I remember seeing Robert Klein and George Carlin and David Brenner, [David] Steinberg. These guys would come out, and suddenly I noticed I was laughing more than my dad, because their humor was coming more from my point of view.
"Especially Robert Klein. He was a guy, I felt, like me: middle-class, normal parents, not crazy, not rich, not poor, just normal; watched the same TV shows as a kid that I watched; joked about the same kind of things that I watched. And that was a big change in comedy for me."
On how those comedians tapped into youth culture
"Suddenly here were guys on mainstream television talking about things only kids [identified with]. Now adults buy Rolling Stones albums, but back in the '70s there were adult records — you had Henry Mancini and Frank Sinatra and ... for the kids The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, whatever. And nobody ever did jokes about The Beatles on mainstream television. These were the first comedians to sort of parody younger people's lifestyles."
On his first appearance on The Tonight Show
"I got heckled my first show [with Johnny Carson,] which was a horrible experience, but luckily I had worked a lot of clubs so I could deal with it, and Johnny seemed to like that.
"But our producer ... Fred [de Cordova] was somewhat of a legendary figure, having directed Jack Benny and all these people. He would say, 'After you do your stand-up routine, if I go like this' — waving [his] hands toward me — 'that means go over and sit next to Johnny. If I put my hand up like this, stay on your mark. If I wave you away, go behind the curtain. But whatever you do, don't move until you get my signal.'
"I walk out, I do my routine. ... I look over at Fred, who is about to signal me, and his phone rings and now he's talking and I don't know what to do. ... I realize it was only maybe six, seven seconds, but of course to me [I] might as well have been out there an hour and a half, just hanging, waiting to get Fred's signal to come over and sit next to Johnny.
"... That's what The Tonight Show is: It's not trying to get the audience to laugh, it's trying to get Johnny to laugh. But you know, the audience gets the cue from the host, and if Johnny is laughing, they're enjoying it more."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with the second day of our late-night week. Later this week, we'll hear from Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Questlove, who leads the band The Roots, and will be moving with Fallon to "The Tonight Show" early next year. Later in today's show, we'll feature an interview with Conan O'Brien.
First, we have an interview with Jay Leno recorded in October 1996, after the publication of his memoir "Leading with My Chin." Leno succeeded Johnny Carson as the host of "The Tonight Show" in 1992. Although it's a position he'd always dreamed of, he left "The Tonight Show" in September of 2009 to start his own primetime show in NBC, and Conan O'Brien became the new host of "The Tonight Show."
But, just a few months later, in January of 2010, Leno's show was cancelled. In a very controversial move, he returned to "The Tonight Show," leaving O'Brien without a TV home, until a few months later when O'Brien started a new late-night show on TBS. Next February, Leno will leave "The Tonight Show" for the second and, we assume, final time, and it will be Jimmy Fallon's turn to take over.
Before we hear the interview, our TV critic David Bianculli is going to talk about Jay Leno's contributions to late-night TV.
Hey, David, welcome back.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is fun. I'm glad to be here.
GROSS: Yeah. And you brought a clip to get us started, before hearing the Jay Leno interview. What did you bring?
BIANCULLI: This is Jay Leno's first appearance on the old "Tonight Show." What's great about hearing these old clips is that you can hear that they're going over with the audience. And these are people - nobody knew who Jay Leno was, and he's out there in a horrible '70s suit, but he had good jokes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")
JAY LENO: David Jansen's commercial for Excedrin: The man looks like a headache.
See, when I was a kid, we were never allowed to have headaches. See, my folks grew up during the Depression, so consequently, they make you feel very guilty about everything, you know. I mean, even now, I go home for a weekend, hey dad, pass the salt. We never had salt when we were kids. We had to live without salt. We didn't have underwear, potatoes. We ate dirt every day of the week. Your mother and I hunted wild dog for food. We had nothing when we were your age.
GROSS: That's Jay Leno in 1977, his first appearance on "The Tonight Show." Now that Leno is preparing to leave "The Tonight Show," for real this time...
BIANCULLI: Again, yeah.
GROSS: ...yeah. How would you describe his place in late-night TV?
BIANCULLI: Well, what he ended up doing was finding and acceptable average. I mean, when he started, when he was up against Letterman, Letterman beat him for the first couple years. But then once Leno came ahead, he was unstoppable. He never lost that audience. And the reason why NBC did all the dumb things it did with primetime and bringing him back is because Jay Leno had numbers that nobody else was getting. And so he was very successful.
And I think he was successful at being middle-of-the-road, at being a broadcast comic, which is what "The Tonight Show" certainly was under Johnny and under Jack Parr and under Steve Allen. And he did continue that.
GROSS: So middle-of-the-road wins the big numbers.
BIANCULLI: Well, it does, except the numbers are shrinking now, and the audience is changing now, and how much of a television program they're watching or whether they're even watching it on television is changing now.
GROSS: You told me a great story that I'd like you to tell our listeners. You interviewed Leno when he was in that transition, leaving "The Tonight Show" and preparing to host his new 10 o'clock primetime show.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. He's kind of wary of the press. I mean, it's pretty much a given that more people prefer Letterman to Leno, and he feels the heat of all of that. But I started off the interview by reading a couple of quotes of people basically saying this new guy is never going to match the old guy, and "The Tonight Show" is just a shadow of what it was, and I don't know what NBC was thinking.
He's going, how many more of these am I going to have to hear? And I read him two or three. And then I said these are from 1962, when Johnny Carson took over for Jack Parr. And suddenly he lightened up, I mean, completely, and he sort of talked about the idea that, in history, when a popular host leaves and another one comes in, no matter how good that person may be, there's a learning curve and there's a resistance. So he got that part of his place of history.
GROSS: So, David, why don't we hear the interview that I recorded with Jay Leno? This was back in 1996, just before his program celebrating his fifth anniversary as the host of "The Tonight Show."
GROSS: Jay Leno, welcome to FRESH AIR.
LENO: Thank you.
GROSS: Like most young comics, your ambition when you were starting out was to eventually get onto "The Tonight Show."
GROSS: What was the most memorable part of your first shot on "The Tonight Show"?
LENO: Most memorable would be - well, I got heckled my first shot, which was a horrible experience. But luckily, I'd worked a lot of clubs, so I could deal with that, and Johnny seemed to like that. But our producer, Fred de Cordova, you know, he would say to you, OK, here's the deal. He would come over, and he would say - and Fred was somewhat of a legendary figure, having, you know, directed Jack Benny and all these people.
He would say: After you do your standup routine, if I go like this, waving my hands towards me, that means come over and sit down to Johnny. If I put my hand up like this, stay on your mark. If I wave you away, go behind the curtain. But whatever you do, don't move until you get my signal. I said yes, sir.
I walk out. I do my routine, and thank you, good night, big laughs, thank you, thank you very much. I look over, and I see Fred about to signal me, and his phone rings. I see him, hello. Now he's talking. And I don't know what to do. And the audience is now getting into that (clapping), you know, we're down to that odd one or two clap. And I'm still standing there.
So the applause picks up a little bit more, as if people are going, oh, all right, just get lost, will you, you know. And I'm going hi - and he's talking away, you know, da, da, da, da, da, da. Now the applause has all but stopped. Fred puts the phone down, he looks over, completely forgetting - oh, come here, come on, oh, thank you.
You know, I realize it was only maybe six, seven seconds, but, of course, to me I might as well have been up there an hour and a half at this point, just hanging, waiting to get Fred's signal to come over and sit down next to Johnny. So that was pretty scary.
GROSS: On your first shot on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, did he laugh at your jokes?
LENO: Yeah, he was very good, actually. He was a terrific audience. I mean, that's what the "The Tonight Show" is. It's not trying to get the audience to laugh. It's trying to get Johnny to laugh.
GROSS: Right, right.
LENO: But, you know, the audience gets the cue from the host.
LENO: And if Johnny is laughing, they're enjoying it more.
GROSS: Did Johnny Carson give you advice about your standup act, or later on about guest hosting or hosting when you took over?
LENO: Not so much about hosting, but he did about, you know, the first time I did "The Tonight Show" - well, actually, I was the guy that was sort of the last of my graduating class to do "The Tonight Show." By graduating class, I mean all the guys I sort of started with: Robin Williams - and, well, not Robin, I mean, Letterman and, oh, guys like George Miller and so many of the comics. They all did it before me.
And, you know, Johnny came in one night at The Improv to see me. Harvey Korman brought him in, and, you know, there are two kinds of comedians. There are comedians that have a lot of attitude, and not many jokes. There are comedians that have a lot of jokes, but not much stage persona.
By attitude, I mean those kind of comics who can get on stage and go, hey, pal. Nice hat. All right? What did you win - somebody guess your weight? You know, that kind of thing. And they're loud and they're boisterous, and they're just funny in their nature, but there are no jokes.
And then there are other comedians like, well, you take a guy like Steven Wright, who are just natural joke writers, you know, very monotone. They tell the joke a certain way. And to me, the best comedians are the ones that combine both those elements. You have a joke, and you have an attitude.
I remember Johnny came to see me, and he said, you know, he thought I was funny, but I wasn't ready for the show because my jokes were too far apart. You know, I didn't quite understand what he meant, but I listened. And then I started watching his monologue, and I realized, you know, he's doing 15 or 20 jokes in a space where I was doing five.
I mean, I could get on stage and - being sort of physically big and loud and imposing - I could get a laugh where there wasn't any, but that really - that was great for a nightclub, but not for TV. You know, the idea being, on television, if the joke doesn't work, your funny attitude will carry you through. And if your funny attitude doesn't carry you through, your joke will carry you through. And if they both work, you've got a killer joke, you know.
GROSS: Now, how do you work up your opening monologue?
GROSS: Well, and how do you feel - and also, how do you feel about having writers writing with you? I'm sure during the years that you were doing clubs, you were writing all your own material, and I would think it would...
LENO: I was writing all my own stuff. And there's this arrogance that a lot of comedians had, and I certainly have it, or at least had it. You know, I can do this. I can handle it. I mean, like, the first 15 to 20 times I hosted "The Tonight Show," I said I don't need cue cards. I'll memorize it. And I did OK.
But then I realized this is ridiculous. If you're going to this every day, you can't memorize, you know, 11-and-a-half minutes worth of jokes. I mean, you'll go nuts. You'll go crazy trying to do this. And then I gradually got into it. And now the way it works is we tape the show from five to six, and then we have a meeting. I go home at maybe 7:30, 8 o'clock.
Nine o'clock, I start to put the monologue together. Eleven o'clock, Jimmy Brogan, he's the guy that works with me on the monologue, we go through maybe 500 or 600 jokes that we've prepared that day, or everybody's prepared. And they're not all jokes. Some are just punch lines. Some are just setups. Some are: did you hear about the guy who did this odd thing in Iowa, question mark. You're trying to make a joke out of that.
Sometimes it's a complete joke from a writer. Anyway, we'll try and put at least half the monologue together by two or three in the morning. And then I get into work about 8:30, and through the course of the day, and you're writing jokes constantly as you're picking the red M&Ms out of some rock group's, you know, dressing room because, whatever, you know, you're still dealing with show business people.
GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with Jay Leno. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: It's late-night week on FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Jay Leno, recorded in 1996 after the publication of his memoir, "Leading with My Chin," in which he wrote about his early days in comedy.
When you were starting in comedy, there weren't comedy clubs yet, not as we know them. Some of the venues that you played included retirement homes, prisons, mental hospitals. This is through a state program in Massachusetts. I think you got like 10 bucks for a performance?
LENO: We used to get 10 bucks a show to do old people's birthday parties for the state. We used to do prisons. I did a show at, like, Walpole State Prison. And prisoners are not a good audience, you know, because comedy is based on a certain civility. How folks. How are you?
You know. And when you got a guy sitting in the front row and he's got a little blond kid on a choke chain, wearing underpants, sitting on the floor next to him, that's not an ideal audience, you know?
GROSS: What material would you do in your prison...
LENO: You just do your regular act. I only had my act growing up, whatever. You know, I used to do these psychiatric homes and, you know, they'd get like -you know, and this is not to make fun of psychiatric patients, but you know, you go, hi, everybody, how you doing? And then, like, in the middle of your act there'd be a guy in the corner going...
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
LENO: And then orderlies would come in - this would just break the mood of the whole room, you know. Hey, anybody here from Boston?
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
LENO: You know, hey, hey, calm down there, fellow. How you doing? You know... Oh.
GROSS: Well, did this give you confidence, performing in front of people who either...
LENO: Well, it was fascinating because you realized - it wasn't until I performed at, like, this place Lenny's on the Turnpike in Boston that I ever got a professional audience.
You know, I could always say in my own mind, well, you know, the audience, it's a psychiatric hospital. They didn't laugh because there's obviously something wrong with them.
GROSS: You could say - right, if they don't laugh, they're crazy.
LENO: Yeah. It was like strip clubs.
LENO: When I play strip clubs, they wouldn't laugh or applaud or do anything. But it gave you the confidence just to stand on stage because the people weren't paying any attention to me anyway. I mean there's a story in the book about playing this club called the Mineshaft where - it was in Minnesota. People would pay $5 to get in, and then for another $5 the customers would get a miner's hat with a light on it.
Now, there were no lights in the club. It was just a big empty building. And then women would come out and dance. And of course the guys had the lights on their heads, and they would look at whatever part of the women they wanted to look at with the light, and I would just be standing in the darkness, telling jokes. Hi, everybody. How you doing?
Occasionally somebody would look over at me, and I couldn't even look at them because they had the bright light on their head. So if they looked at me, ow, it burned my eye. I had to look away. So most of the time, for the whole week I was just standing in darkness while guys looked at these women with those miner's hats on.
GROSS: You were probably one of the most hardworking comics in show business when you were getting started, just performing anywhere and everywhere to get experience. But sometimes you'd get billed - you'd get booked in really inappropriate places. And my favorite story about that is when you were booked, I guess it was a Catskill resort at a Hassidic, at an Orthodox Jewish resort.
LENO: Yeah, there was this...
GROSS: And you were booked as, what, tonight Jay Leno, Jewish storyteller.
LENO: I was billed as a Jewish storyteller.
GROSS: What did you do?
LENO: This agent in New York would come into the clubs, and he'd say I need a comic this Saturday, it pays $50, you know. And I remember one time, before I get to that story, this guy sent me up to a job, and it paid $100 for the weekend. And I thought, well, that's pretty good, $100 for the weekend.
And I remember afterwards, the owner of the hotel came over and said, boy, that was very good. You know, normally we don't like to spend $1,200 on an act, but we really enjoyed you. And I realized the agent took $1,100 commission out of my $100.
LENO: You know, it was just a nightmare. Anyway, that the last time I worked with him. The first time, he sends me to up the Catskills at the La Chaim(ph) Resort or something like this. And I said, what is it? Just a nightclub. I said what kind - I said is it mostly - oh no, you go up there.
So I finally find this place, and it's all these cabins way back in the woods, nice people, but it's a Hassidic resort. And I pull in there, and it says on one of those - one of those bad signs, you know, you pull on a trailer, and it's got the flashing lights around it, tonight Jay Leno, Jewish storyteller.
So I get there, and I walk out onstage, and it's all Hassidic. You know, and I don't even speak Hebrew, you know. And I said there's been a big mistake, you know, I'm not really a storyteller, I'm not even Jewish. The guy made a mistake - da da da. And this guy said, oh, do your act, let's hear what you do, you know.
LENO: So I did my - and they were very nice and, I mean they were polite. You know, you just - I felt bad for them, and they felt bad for me, and they were nice people. It just, it wasn't what they had bought, you know. It was a horrible job.
GROSS: You know, I think it's funny, in your book you talk about how when you were getting started in comedy, or maybe this was even before you got started, when you were growing up, the comics meant adult guys, usually from New York, usually Jewish, who spoke more to your father than they spoke to you.
LENO: That's true. When I was a kid, you had Alan King, you had Rodney Dangerfield, and these guys were always funny, but they always came from the point of view, at least to me, was these kids today with the long hair, you can't tell the boys from the girls, I'll tell you. You know...
LENO: And all that was funny. My father would laugh at that. And then I remember seeing Robert Klein and George Carlin and David Brenner and Steinberg, and these guys would come out, and suddenly I noticed I was laughing more than my dad because their humor was coming more from my point of view, especially Robert Klein.
He was a guy who was, I felt, like me: middle-class, normal parents, not (unintelligible) not rich, not poor, just normal, you know, watched the same TV shows as a kid that I watched, Joked about the same kind of things that I watched. And that was a big change in comedy, at least for me.
GROSS: So how did you figure out where you material was going to be?
LENO: I figured it out from watching those guys. You know, I said to myself, boy, these guys make fun of the same kind of things that I think are funny. These are the same things I talk about with my friends. I mean prior to them, I don't think you would have seen Alan King come on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and do jokes about Jimi Hendrix. You know, it just didn't - you know, it didn't happen.
GROSS: No, it would be about Jimi Hendrix mowing his lawn.
LENO: Right, right, Jimi Hendrix with the hair like that, you know. But I mean, suddenly here were guys on mainstream television talking about things only kids - you know, now adults by Rolling Stone albums, you know what I'm saying? But back in the '70s, there were adult records, you know, you had Henry Mancini and Frank Sinatra, and then you had, for the kids, you know, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, whatever. And nobody ever did jokes about The Beatles on mainstream television.
These were the first comedians to sort of parody younger people's lifestyles.
GROSS: You know, we were talking about how hardworking you were as a young comic, just trying out everything that you could, playing every place you could play. When you moved to Los Angeles, you moved there before you had a home, before you had any money, and you often ended up just, like, sleeping on the steps to the comedy clubs or sleeping in the alleys behind comedy clubs.
LENO: Yeah, I used to get picked up in L.A. for vagrancy. And what the cops would do is they'd just put you in the back of the car, and you'd just drive around with them on their shift all night. And being a comic, you know, this worked, well, somewhat to my advantage, but actually no. The first time I got picked up, you know, they'd see you, let's move along, where do you live?
I don't kind of live anywhere. All right, get in the car. What do you do? I'm a comedian. Oh yeah? Tell us a joke, you know. So then you'd sort of try and come up with every dirty joke you could think of to tell these cops all night, and har, har, that was - and that worked pretty good. Well, they let me go.
But then two or three nights would go by, and the cops would go, hey, are you that comedian guy our partner picked up the other night? Yeah. Get in the car. All those jokes you were telling - so, you know, two or three nights a week I'd have to ride around until dawn telling jokes to different cops because they would say, hey, have you seen that kid on the street, pick him up, he's got some funny jokes.
GROSS: It must be strange for you, knowing so many comics so well and having been in the position of being a young hardworking comic, really wanting their big break, to now be the guy who could give a young hardworking comic a big break.
LENO: Oh man, it's a nightmare.
GROSS: And I'm sure you don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. On the other hand, you want to have the best show you possibly can. So it's probably a really awkward spot.
LENO: Oh, it's horrible because I used to think, well, now that I'm hosting "The Tonight Show," I can go anywhere. But now you can't go anywhere because you walk in and go, oh gee, there's Larry, I've got to hide, you know.
LENO: I mean that's what it is. I mean, you know, you have friends that come up to you that - you know, when I first got the job, men, women, comedians would come up to me and they'd go, hey Jay, you know, Johnny would never put me on, but now you've got the show, it'll be great, man, I can come on all the time.
And I'd have to say but you know, if you weren't good enough to get on with Johnny, it's not good enough to get on with me. You've got to make it funnier. And you know, I lost a lot of friends that way. I mean it's just they're people that I love dearly as friends, but the material is not strong enough, or maybe it's really old-fashioned, you know. It's just, you know, old jokes about, I don't know, hippies or airline food or whatever it is.
And you just say, you know, you've got to update the stuff. And they just don't get it.
GROSS: Jay Leno, recorded in 1996. He leaves "The Tonight Show" in February. Our late-night series continues in the second half of the show. Each day the interviews from our late-night series will be added to our late-night theme page and available for downloading on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.