Rubber-faced Jay Leno pulls laughs out of life
HEY, you have to love a guy who plays Carnegie Hall on a Harley-Davidson. Sure, but then everybody loves Jay Leno.Skip to next paragraph
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The former auto mechanic who started out cracking one-liners in strip joints like Boston's Kit Kat Klub and then spent 15 years schlepping on the Kiwanis Club and college circuit is currently America's king of stand-up comedy.
The guy is all over TV. Showtime. Letterman. Carson. And now he has a contract for his own series of late-night comedy specials on NBC. The first one aired last month.
And that's just this year. Next season Leno is expected to perform the ultimate herculean task on network television - resurrecting the comedy-variety series in prime time.
And that's just TV. On stage, the man is booked a year in advance. During the past 12 months, Leno has played more than 300 concerts in 41 states.
The self-described ``foot soldier of comedy,'' who still rides motorcycles in his Beatle boots, is, according to fellow funnyman and friend David Letterman, the ``funniest comedian working today.''
``People always say, `Young, hip [Jay Leno].' Well, I'm not young. I'm not particularly hip. I'm just a comedian,'' says Leno about his appeal.
Sarcastic social commentator, ombudsman of pop culture, and merciless media critic, Leno is a rubber-faced everyman who pulls laughs out of life like rabbits from a hat. Less cerebral than Steve Wright, less abrasive than Eddie Murphy, Leno milks his guffaws from modern-day inanities:
You know, TV Guide is now considered reading. That happened about the same time catsup became a vegetable. Their ad campaign is ``TV is getting more complicated.'' Like there's actually people sitting around going, ``We'd like to watch the `Dukes of Hazzard' but we don't know if we have the educational background.'''
Like comic predecessors Robert Klein and George Carlin, Leno is less the master of the one-liner than a peerless observer of life's little absurdities, whether found in the corridors of the White House, aboard the ``Love Boat,'' or on last night's flight from Columbus (``The in-flight movie was `Eraserhead'''). A verbal essayist who disdains the proverbial ``joke banks'' and prefers William F. Buckley's linguistic joustings on ``Firing Line,'' Leno espouses the bon mot instead of the obscenity. He has been called an ``absurdist with a PG-13 rating.''
``I like to paint word pictures,'' says Leno, backstage after a recent sold-out concert near his hometown of Andover, Mass. ``I've always liked Mort Sahl, Bob and Ray - people who find an effective word or phrase. I try to work clean because I find there is a funnier word than an obscenity.''
A physically unlikely comic superstar with his oft-described Dudley Do-Right chin - he has been extolled everywhere from Variety to Rolling Stone to the Washington Post - Leno is a hybrid mix of Hollywood hipster and working-class whatzit. In jeans and a jacket with sleeves shoved up `a la Don Johnson, Leno delivers his rapid-fire, two-hour monologue in what is best described as a hefty whine. Although he was once rejected for a TV series because a casting agent said, ``He's funny, but he's very, very unattractive, and we just feel he would be frightening to children,'' Leno manages to project a Good Neighbor Sam image. He feels he's at his best in front of a live audience.
``Jay's a master at getting the audience on his side,'' David Letterman once said of Leno's appeal. ``You immediately feel like he's your ally.''
With a ``just-plain-folks'' comic philosophy that embraces ``bringing down the lawyer and bringing up the janitor,'' Leno is considered a peerless worker of the crowd. The shows that often begin with his Helzapoppin motorcycle entrance settle into friendly give and takes with individual audience members.