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The fastest comic on two wheels.


The noise was deafening, and there wasn't a thing he could do about it--not just yet.

The headlining comedian nervously tapped his foot on the wooden floor in the back of the smoke-filled nightclub as he waited to walk onto a tiny stage in front. Due to technical difficulties with the sound system, the show was ten minutes late in starting. The audience, mostly college students and members of a local motorcycle club, impatiently began a rhythmic pounding of glasses and bottles on their tables. Most of them hurled insults at the scheduled entertainer they had not yet seen.

Once the show began, however, young Jay Leno showed that in addition to a bachelor's degree earned a few years earlier he should have received a master's in charisma. With a combination of solid material and personal charm, he turned the jeers into laughter as he poked fun at current events and personalities in the news. At the end of his monologue, the audience showed its approval with a standing ovation.

Jay Leno was a hit. But not even the most astute seer could have predicted the supercharged rise of this lantern-jawed native of New Rochelle, New York.

Leno had entertained others since childhood. "i was the class clown," he says, "but the things I'd do--flush tennis balls down toilets, lock dogs in lockers--were not exactly career moves.

"Once in grade school the teacher was telling us about Robin Hood. 'And people were very cruel back then,' she said. 'They killed others by boiling them in oil.' I ad-libbed for the first time, 'But they couldn't boil Tuck. He was a friar.' The class broke up."

Throughout high school, Jay realized that he might not know every answer to questions about history or math, but he was keenly aware that he could say things that made people laugh. Later, when he attended college, he earned some of his tuition money by entertaining in local coffeehouses. Other expenses were covered through his salary as a part-time Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce mechanic.

Most graduates interview with established corporations. But Jay Leno chose to compete in the dog-eat-dog world of professional show business.

Close friends tried their best to change his mind. They reminded him that although he was popular around Boston neighborhoods and in some small New York clubs, he was an unknown in the entertainment capital--Los Angeles. On top fo that, he had no connections. The warnings notwithstanding, Leno purchased a one-way ticket to California.

Agents weren't pounding on his door the day of his arrival, and job offers were sporadic. What little money he had disappeared quickly; sleeping arrangements were more creative than comfortable. He took refuge in downtown missions, under the stairs of the Comedy Store on Sunset Strip, and, eventually, in the backseat of a 1955 Buick Roadmaster he acquired. Limited engagements at sleazy nightclubs brought in just enough money to keep his stomach and the Roadmaster's gas tank relatively full.

"It was tough," he admits. "I'd meet a kindly waitress who would let me use the bathroom; then I drove across town to use someone else's shower. I figured it was handy training in the event I ever had to hide out from the police"

When he did work, it was for near-poverty wages at offbeat clubs. One prospective manager even tried to persuade him to be a comedian-wrestler. "As much as I could use the money, I passed on that one," Leno says.

His first big break came when the television comedian Jimmie Walker, impressed with Leno's quick wit, hired him. The job gave Leno an opportunity to sharpen his awareness about the funny side of such everyday things as television, fast foods, and air travel. "I fly the smaller airlines," he wrote. "You know that kind--when the pilot stops along the way to show the plane to his friends."

Leno's second break was meeting and befriending another starving comic--David Letterman. Leno helped Letterman find work when the comic, fresh from Indianapolis, was trying to break into the L.A. comedy scene. Soon, the two became pals who helped each other in their common struggle for recognition and survival.

Leno's exposure and popularity steadily increased through several TV appearances with Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. Viewers throughout America had the opportunity to hear some of Leno's current-events humor, such as his crack after Nancy Reagan had just won a humanitarian award: "It's good to see she beat out the scheming little Mother Teresa."

Years later, when his chum Letterman was hired by NBC to host "Late Night with David Letterman," Leno was one of the first guests. Leno was at top form chatting with his host and members of the studio audience about life in Hollywood. "If God Doesn't destroy Sunset Strip," he observed, "He owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah."

National reacton to Leno was so enthusiastic that he was invited back again--and again. He has now had more guest shots with Letterman than any other celebrity has. "Jay Leno," Letterman says, "is the funniest comedian working today."

Leno's humor is clean, yet he can get laughs from the most sophisticated crowds. He feels there is such a thing as "a wrong kind of laugh." "It's a matter of doing what's essentially true," he says. "Once a friend of mine said something funny about drugs, and when we all laughed he said, 'You should try that on stage.' 'I don't do drug jokes,' I said. 'That's O.K. Try it,' he said.

"So, I'm doing this act, and I throw out this drug line, and it gets a big laugh. At the end of the show, this guy comes up to me and asks, 'What was this thing you did about drugs? That doesn't sound like you. Do you use drugs?'

"This is amazing, I thought. After 90 minutes this guy picks out the one line that was not mine. Never again will I do something that is not a part of what I do."

Leno's approach to comedy reflects his lifestyle. "I know people who finish their act and say, 'I've got to get drunk and have some sex in this town.' When I finish my act, I go back to my room and watch television, or I'll go out for pizza with a friend. I'm hopelessly american. If something doesn't come in a Styrofoam box with a lid on it, I'm lost."

In spite of his reserved personal behavior, it did not take long for others to notice his rich, unmined talents. He was invited to work his two-hour-plus sets throughout the United States, only now in first-rate clubs and houses. In 1986, he performed before a sell-out crowd in Carnegie Hall.

Most press agents would call this a "one-man show" or entitle it "An Evening With . . . ." But that's not Leno's style. "I hate these terms," he says, revealing a blue-collar attitude toward his craft. "I stand up in front of people and tell jokes. That's all."

Leno doesn't like to take himself too seriously. "I'm the same guy on stage and off," he admits. "All that stuff about 'laughing on the inside, crying on the outside'--I don't get it."

His rising popularity has led to a major movie contract. Collision Course, an action-packed detective comedy co-starring Leno and Pat Morita, was scheduled to be released early this year.

The most convincing proof Leno has reached the top, however, came last September, when he was selected permanent Monday night guest host of "The Tonight Show." He also acts as guest host Monday through Friday during a number of Johnny Carson's vacation weeks.

Success seems to have affected Leno's sense of values little. His lifestyle is a refreshing contrast to that of the typical celebrity. He lives in a modest home in Hollywood Hills, and he has been happily married to a writer, Mavis Nicholson Leno, since 1980. "Mavis travels with me about half the time," he says. "The other times, we talk on the phone." In short, you won't see his picture on the front of some scandal-laced tabloid on the shelf of your local grocery store.

His conservative sense of values spills over into his work as well. Television viewers are familiar with Leno's appearances in commercials for a potato-chip company. This certainly gives him no problems. "But I won't do beer ads," he insists. "I don't think those beer companies should be trying to get young adults--which we all know means teenagers--to drink beer. I don't want some father to come to my show saying, 'My kid got killed because of your ad.' I draw the line at taking money for something I don't use."

Perhaps this reasoning is the real key to Leno's success--he understands both his audience and himself. He admits, "I genuinely like being a comedian. People frequently say to me, 'O.K., you're a stand-up comedian now, but what do you really want to do?' I have no desire to sing, nor to play King Lear, nor to star in my own sitcom."

He does, however, openly display a passion for something besides his family and his work--his thirst for antique cars and motorcycles. He still owns that '55 Roadmaster, affectionately known as "Mr. Buick." "It seats seven--for dinner," Leno quips. During a rare day off he'll be seen at home tinkering with a misbehaving carburetor or changing a set of spark plugs. Among his collection are about a score of motorcycles, including a beefy Harley-Davidson Tour-Glide and other more exotic creations such as a Vincent Rapide, a '38 Brough Superior 100, and an '83 Ducati.

Sleek motorcycles, television appearances, and seeing his name on a theater marquee are all rewarding, certainly, but what Leno enjoys best is the give-and-take with a live audience. Consequently, he averages 300 appearances a year. "No big deal," he says. "If Yul Brynner could do The King and I for 30 years, I can handle this. If I were in the army, it would be worse. This is like being in the army--but with money."

And the money is definitely there. Today, Leno commands $15,000 an appearance. That makes it a lot easier to endure the travel. And these days, there's nobody pounding the tables with bottles.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Jay Leno
Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1988
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