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My 15 minutes as a Jay Leno

The writer takes an eight-week comedy course and then performs at the Hollywood Improv, drawing laughs – then a blank – on stage.

(Page 3 of 3)

Assignment for Week 3 was to develop a premise based on our topics. A good premise is an original observation – not something that is too general or trite. We had to do it without using the words, “I,” “me,” or “mine,” so the premise would be universal.

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Then we had to act our premises out. It turns out vaudeville-style punch lines (“take my wife ... please”) are out. Comedy is now about dramatizing funny situations. Less Bob Hope. More Chris Rock. Consider this bit on body piercing: (premise alone) “It’s hard to understand what people are saying when they’ve got hardware in their mouth.” (With act out) “Arg, ooh, gump. Excuse me, could you take that bolt out of your tongue and repeat tonight’s specials again?”

For the final weeks, we refined our material and practiced things such as adjusting the microphone without shorting out an electrical substation. We were just getting comfortable when the final performance exploded on us. I had thought it would be after the last week of the course. Turns out it was the week before. I spent days pacing back and forth in my house, reciting lines. Our gerbil never laughed once. I was anxious.

• • •

I was going along fine on stage at the Improv. People other than my wife were laughing with some regularity. “How many of you (raise your hands) are poor? How many are trying to disguise that fact by wearing designer knockoffs and rented clothes?”

“I’m not actually poor. I just feeeeeel poor. That’s because when I moved to L.A. from Ohio 25 years ago, I moved in right next to two of the wealthiest communities in America...”

Yet several things surprised me. One was how difficult it was to carry five minutes of rat-a-tat verbiage in my head while trying to appear casual and unscripted. Another was the audience reaction. They broke into convulsions at lines I didn’t think were funny – and barely guffawed at others I thought were pretty good.

“I’m surrounded by extremely wealthy people. You’ve seen them. There the ones with bumper stickers that read, ‘my other car’s also a Bentley.’ I drive a 15-year-old van with a bumper sticker that says, ‘my other car’s a set of used roller blades.’ ”

Not a great line. But huge laughter.

About four-fifths of the way through my routine, it happened. I blanked. The audience must have either been playing with their iPhones or figured my deer-in-headlights act was intentional. The more I tried to remember my next line, the more they laughed.

Finally, I pulled a slip of paper out of my pocket and finished the routine. Afterward, everyone was supportive, but there were no offers from Leno’s staff.

Which brings me to one final conclusion about comedy: Journalism looks pretty good.