In this handler-heavy world, it’s rare to be able to write a celebrity profile on a subject who truly lets you in. But that was the case with Jay Leno, the former “Tonight Show” host who is set to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on Oct. 19. I spent hours with him stretched over a couple of days last month. The results are in our profile.
But with so much Leno to choose from, a lot of my reporting hit the cutting room floor.
One of my favorite interviews was with Mavis Leno, Jay’s longtime wife. I did include a quote from Mavis, but there’s more to share.
Mavis, who at 68 is four years older than her husband, looks a lot like Sally Field in person, reads voraciously – we spent a chunk of our time chatting about Julia Child and the history of women in the military – and she takes full credit for the couple’s decision not to have children. (Yes, I asked why they didn’t have any kids. It seemed only natural as I listened to Jay speak for hours about his late parents. Family clearly means something to him.)
Mavis answered by telling me about watching “The Honeymooners” as a young girl.
“I would see a young woman who was very attractive, and a thousand times smarter, and she’s living in this little tenement hovel with her husband, Ralph, and then this Ed Norton, who has an even hotter wife,” Mavis told me. “These men spend all their time talking about what a drag the wives are and asking how can they get away from them. It’s perfectly obvious the women are the ones trapped.”
“I remember telling my mother when I was 7 or 8 that I was never going to get married or have children,” continued Mavis. “To me, this is the way women get caught.”
The marriage thing changed when she met the young comedian in the 1970s.
“He is probably the single kindest human being I ever met,” said Mavis.
Seth Meyers, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and now late-night host, didn’t go quite that far. But he praised Leno on two counts. He told me of his respect for Leno as a professional, particularly his commitment to the monologue. Meyers also remembers pre-show visits in “The Tonight Show” green room, not standard practice from a host.
“When I did his show, he would stop and hang out,” said Meyers. “That’s the first time we met. He wants to know where you’re from, he wants to know about your family.”
I also spoke with Alan Zweibel, a comedy writer extraordinaire. He was at “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s, writing Roseanne Roseannadanna for Gilda Radner and the Samurai sketch for John Belushi. More recently, he collaborated on the stage version of Billy Crystal’s memoir, “700 Sundays.”
“I remember Jay, when he used to come down from Boston in the ’70s on some motorcycle, and the place would be rocking,” said Zweibel. “He could go on and on. I basically saw him on weekends and I would be really impressed with the new stuff, the stuff that he didn’t have the week before.”
Zweibel was one of several sources who thought it was important to see Leno on stage, away from the TV lights. “Look, ‘The Tonight Show,’ when he did it, he was very successful,” said Zweibel. “But to see Jay in a club, to see Jay in a live performance, it’s a different dance entirely. It’s more comfortable, it’s more stream of consciousness, it’s just a different form.”