Lowell, Mass. — HEY, you have to love a guy who plays Carnegie Hall on a Harley-Davidson. Sure, but then everybody loves Jay Leno.
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.
``There is just so much angry comedy out there that's based on sexism and racism that just shows the bad side to life. Maybe it's very funny, but you come out feeling terrible about the human race,'' says Leno, who adds, however, ``I'm not one of those flag-waving people.... When I'm on stage, I scan the audience for that intelligent face [and play to it]. People always think you have to pander, [but] I find that audiences tend to rise to what's happening.''
``To me, if you want to get people away from something, you give them something more interesting. It's a lot like pornography. People look at it, and then they get tired of it. ... Being a comedian is not unlike being a substitute teacher. If you walk in and turn your back and kids are throwing spitballs, you have to kind of lay down the law.''
Unlike many successful comedians who give up the grind of live performing for the comfort and safety of television appearances and record albums, Leno resolutely sticks to the road. After 15 years of coast-to-coast club gigs that included plenty of low-rent addresses, rowdy audiences, and fees that barely broke three sawbucks Leno insists that it is this rough-and-tumble milieu that has not only honed his performing skills but also provided him most of his material.
``I love live performing,'' he says. ``I like talking to people. That's where I get jokes. That's where the funniest stuff comes from. ... Plus I control the environment. I can tell what works and what doesn't. I always know where my act is.''
Playing places like the Kit Kat Klub and college dorms also provided Leno with a healthy respect for audiences' truncated attention spans. His first professional appearance, which began with the line ``Nixon - what a jerk...,'' elicited a barrage of catcalls: ``He's our President.... GET OFF THE STAGE!'' Although Leno eventually amended his act, moving from political one-liners to a gentler narrative style, his timing remained tuned to the audience's demands.
``When I watched comedians in the early '60s - you know, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl - they would go on the `Tonight' show and tell maybe two jokes in the whole five minutes. It would build and then have a punch line,'' says Leno. ``Nowadays, you can't tell a story anymore. Everything's got to be bang, bang, bang like Rodney Dangerfield.... You don't see many interesting people on TV anymore because nobody gives them enough time.''
A former class clown whose antics ran to the flush-tennis-balls-down-the-toilet type, Leno credits his parents with his initial introduction to humor (his father was a perennial MC at sales meetings) and Letterman's ``Late Night'' TV comedy show for critical national exposure. After knocking around the country for more than a decade, spending a few nights sleeping in his 1955 Buick Roadmaster (it ``seats seven - for dinner''), Leno eventually played the acme of New York and Los Angeles comedy clubs. But it was his repeated visits to the Letterman show that ultimately landed Leno his own coast-to-coast reputation.
If anything characterizes Leno and his brand of humor, it is his generosity of spirit. ``I think people realize I am the kind of guy who will go to McDonald's,'' says Leno. ``But that doesn't mean I can't make fun of it'': You ever go into McDonald's and the one guy's got the TRAINEE hat on? What is this? That mixing strawberry shakes is not a job for the squeamish? Or you order a fillet-of-fish without the cheese. Hey, it's OK, we'll talk you through it. But my favorite is 7-Eleven. Those guys have got $10,000 worth of electronic equipment guarding $10 worth of Twinkies.