"Frank Sinatra is such a big star that when he plays Las Vegas all they've got to put on the marquee is 'Frank,' and everybody knows who they're talking about. Jerry Lewis is so big in France that when he's there the ads simply say 'The King is Back.' I'm so big in Japan, they don't put anything in the paper. People open the paper, they don't see my name--they know I'm in town, and they rush to the club."
That was Jay Leno, professional comedian, talking.
If the name doesn't immediately ring a bell, it may be because you don't watch late-night television. Leno, who looks like a cross between a young Elvis Presley and an upright Gerry Cooney, is a frequent guest on David Letterman and has been on Johnny Carson as well. At 33, he is already a stage veteran, having begun performing at 19 while still a college student in Boston. Leno has opened for such similar acts as Miles Davis and Patti Page, Chick Corea and Perry Como, and last year, on the way to earning $200,000, he did his stand-up virtually every night. Through tomorrow, he will be appearing at the Comedy Cafe, where he'll throw darts at some of his favorite targets. Such as:
Cars: "I like big cars. I drive a 1955 Buick Roadmaster. This car is so big it seats seven--for dinner. A real man's car. No padded dash on this baby. Solid steel . . . Twice a week I find a Toyota crushed under the fender."
Multipurpose department stores: "What kind of yin-yang goes to Montgomery Ward for a lawyer? You're up for manslaughter. You're going to Montgomery Ward? 'I'll go there, get a lawyer, and, uh, maybe some socks and underwear.' "
Television spinoffs: "They're always making series out of hit movies. Next year ABC's got one called 'Gandhi P.I.' A guy tries to catch criminals by not eating."
Fast food employes: "Highly intelligent people. Lately they're starting to suggest things you might want to eat. I went to McDonald's yesterday and said, 'I'd like some fries.' The girl at the counter says, 'Would you like some fries with that?' "
As you might expect, Leno was always the class clown. "But," he says, "when you're flushing tennis balls down toilets and locking dogs in lockers you don't think of that in terms of career. You're just, like, a jerk." However, jerking around was what he did well. By the time he was a sophomore at Emerson College, studying speech pathology, he was emceeing student shows. "An endless procession of folksingers; 'I'm 19, and my life is over.' Acts like that. You say a lot of stupid stuff, but occasionally you say something that makes people laugh, and you make sure to say it again. After six or seven months you have a semblance of a routine."
From there he went on to strip joints and small clubs, mostly for free, but sometimes for big money--five, maybe 10 bucks a night. Any place he could work, even birthday parties at state-run nursing homes, he worked. To support himself until he hit huge, he was a Mercedes-Benz mechanic. "I had a $50 bill. I'd give it to the club owner and say, 'If my act embarrasses your club, it's yours. If I don't, give it back to me." His act wasn't too swift in those days. "I was a kid with long hair and glasses. I'd get on stage and say, 'Hee-hee, Nixon's a jerk.' Bing. Bing. Bing. They'd look at me and say, 'What are you, 22? Get out of here, you punk.' "
Recalling the scene still makes him laugh, because, in fact, he was a punk. Now, Leno's looks are more in concert with his strongly authoritarian delivery, which sounds very much like a 40-year old Irish cop--hardly unfamiliar territory for a Boston kid, even a half-Italian one like Leno. "You take Rodney," he says of the sainted Dangerfield. "Rodney started at 19. It took a long time for his face to grow into his act. I go to the Catskills now and hear 25-year olds say, 'Hey, my wife, she drives me crazy.' Come on, man. You're 25. How bad can your wife be?"
All comedians, Leno says, "want good reviews, respect from their peers and, obviously, to be very famous." Despite his regular appearances on Letterman (he and Letterman used to write jokes for Jimmy Walker), Leno describes himself as not yet a star but "on the upper side of the middle" of the plethora of comics out there. Not too many years ago a comic was certifiably a star if he appeared on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. Now, with the proliferation of talk shows and cable channels it is much easier for a comic to make money, but much harder to become a star. "Every year's a little bit better for me," Leno says. "Sometimes I think I'd like to explode. Then I think I'd like to keep the lid on a little longer, so it's like I'm always peaking."
He is very much a working comedian. As in every night. If he doesn't have a big deal club date you can find him at the showcases in Los Angeles or New York, like Catch a Rising Star, The Comedy Store or The Improv. "As far as I'm concerned, working every night is great," he says. "Look, I make money. I own a house in Hollywood. My wife travels with me. I used to be a mechanic. How am I gonna say this life is bad?"
Movie Realism: " 'Friday the 13th Part III.' A woman opens up a refrigerator and gets hit in the face with an ax. Now that's a common household accident."
Speed Reading: "I heard that Evelyn Wood just lost a law suit. Yeah, a guy sued her because his eyeball blew out at 10,000 words per minute."
Late Night TV Ads: "I like the Ginsu knife. They guarantee it for 50 years. You gonna return it in 2019? The Ginsu knife will cut through everything. Rock. Wood. Plastic. Metal. Everything. You buy one, they send you two extra. If this one cuts through everything, what do you use the two others for? To cut through this one?"
Nancy Reagan: "Nancy Reagan's idea of the Third World is J.C. Penney's."
Leno lists Dangerfield, Robert Klein, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams and Bill Cosby among his favorite comics. Stars. Yet Leno, like all successful comics, knows people you've never heard of who are funnier than all of them, hysterically funny people who never make it. Some of them just aren't performers. They get on stage and it all goes south. Others are inflexible. "I have friends," Leno says, "who get a shot on a television show and someone on the show tells them, 'Look, I love what you do, but there are certain things you just can't say on TV.' And these guys say, 'Hey, this is what I do. This is my art. Okay, pal? Thank you very much, goodbye.' People who don't make it are people who do material they like rather than what an audience likes. What gets me is guys who are playing a town like Oklahoma City and they say, 'So I'm taking the D train to the Bronx . . .' The audience doesn't get it, and these guys say, 'Hey, what's with you people? You're so unhip.' Well, the truth is they're not unhip. They don't know what you're talking about. They really don't know what you're talking about.
"You hear about guys who refuse to play Vegas because they think it's so unhip and such schlock. I think that's a real snobby attitude. Everybody's got a sense of humor--a comedian's job is to find it. I play Vegas. I put on a suit and tie and work. In Vegas they like jokes. Bing. Bing. Bing. You don't have to change your act, just your angles. Let's say you're doing a phone company joke. In Vegas you might start out saying, 'I've had some trouble with the telephone company lately . . .' In a college you might start out saying, 'Damn Nazi Fascists at the phone company . . .' "
Bing. Bing. Bing.
So Leno's at home one day and he gets this phone call . . .
Agent: "Mr. Leno, I represent Matt Lewis, an up-and-coming young singer. You may not have heard of Matt, but he's about to embark on a nationwide tour of small clubs culminating in 18 months with The Forum in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York, and he's looking for a comic to open up for him on the tour."
Leno: "What kind of money are we talking about?"
Agent: "Before I get to that, Mr. Leno, let me say that Time and the Rolling Stone are sending reporters on this tour with the intent of putting Matt on the covers of Time and the Rolling Stone, and as Matt's friend and confidant you will, of course, share in this publicity and benefit from this attention."
Leno: "How much money are we talking about?"
Agent: "Not very much to start, I'm afraid."
Leno: "How much?"
Agent: "To start, $45 per show."
Leno: (wanting just to get rid of this guy) "My price is $5,000 per show."
Agent: "Well, we can dicker on the price."
Leno: "Dicker? Are you kidding me? What are we gonna dicker? You'll come up to $50, and I'll come down to $4,900? Get outta here."
Ah, comedy. You know it, you love it, you can't live without it. And now, thanking you this time for your time till next time and arruggghhggrrppp . . .