Nobody Talks About Jokes Quite Like Jay Leno

Late Night legend Jay Leno isn't taking to this whole retirement thing.
Late Night legend Jay Leno isn't taking to this whole retirement thing. Photo by Mitchell Haaseth/NBC, courtesy of SPA.

Late Night legend Jay Leno isn't taking to this whole retirement thing.
Photo by Mitchell Haaseth/NBC, courtesy of SPA.

There are few more closely associated with our collective mental image of ‘what’ a stand-up comedian sounds like than Jay Leno. His iconic tenor, the gentle waggle of his hair as we “get a load of this” – staples of late night comedy reaching back into the late ‘70s when Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show made him a household name. While no stranger to the dark side of show business, the larger-than-life radiates a kindness that’s served him well over his 50+ years making Americans laugh.

Truthfully, the only thing that seems to be on Leno's mind is what brought glory and acclaim: jokes. And jokes have a great advocate in Jay Leno.

“It’s funny, but humor doesn’t change a whole lot,” the showman states, ahead of his one night only show on Friday, December 6 at Jones Hall for the SPA Houston. “I think if you tried to watch a Rudolph Valentino romantic movie from the '20s, I think you’d be pulling your hair out because it moves so slow. The gestures are so broad, the whole sweeping thing, when they make love – falling leaves fall! It’s all this unbelievable kind of cliché. But if you were to watch a Chaplin or a Keaton, or a Harold Lloyd, or any of those from the '20s – I think they’re actually FUNNIER than they were then because of the clothes and the style. You know, the rich guy falling down is always gonna get a laugh. Its just one of those staples of the human condition. Hypocrisy is always funny. Preacher caught with church secretary, hilarious! There are certain conventions that just always seem to work.”

Though this should surprise few, Leno’s displays his reference dexterity with ease – offering the condensed history of the joke for those who need a refresher: “Comedy changes, of course, but it doesn’t change that much. The idea of it doesn’t change a whole lot. Kids laughed at Rodney Dangerfield in the '60s, and kids laughed at him in the 2000s. Same jokes, different eras. You got nothing in common with this guy, older Jewish guy. But the jokes are funny. The only thing that’s changed a little bit is the attention span. You don’t sense it in a performing arts center, because they’re there to listen. But if you watch a stand-up comedian from early in the Carson era, the '70s or early '80s – now, everybody does five minutes. But back then, you did nine minutes – maybe ten or 11!

"Bob Newhart could take his time to set up a story, or a joke. That’s not a slam on Bob Newhart, it's just the attention spans. One of my favorite Newhart jokes – and its SO subtle, and classic Newhart – but he used to do a bit about the first astronaut to make extraterrestrial contact, and he comes down back to Earth, and one of the reporters asks him: How much further ahead of us is this alien life? And Newhart says: about six weeks.  It’s the perfect joke because six weeks you can see, but you can’t… six MONTHS is a lot, but you can’t catch up if somebody’s six weeks ahead. It’s just slightly out of reach, you know? It’s a classic bit of Newhart. But if you did that joke in a strip club – it’d be… What? No one knows what you’re talking about.”

Leno, clearly grateful to be serving up his hand-crafted zingers to a room that cares for them, frequently cites his worst gigs of all time – medals from his years in the comedy trenches. “I started out doing this in strip clubs, which is the worst possible. Constant obvious distraction, they’re not there to see you. Even in Vegas, in the early days, were awful because they had dinner shows. Idea is the comedian would go on, they would serve dinner, and all plates had to off the table - this is as the headliner would be coming out! Clang, clang, clang-clang!

"I’ll tell you the worst strip club I ever worked was a place in Atlanta called The Mine Shaft, and it was in a basement. And the gimmick was, there were no lights. No lights at all. When guys came in, they bought a ticket for ten bucks. And for another ten bucks, they bought a miners’ hat. And they put that hat on, and that was the old light in the club. You’d be on stage, and there’d be some girl on stage dancing naked next to you. And I’d be in total darkness, because all the lights in the room would just be on the girl’s ass next to you. Then if I said something, they’d all turn and look at you. It was like a hundred Harleys coming at you! These headlights, it was just horrible! So the fact that you can play a performing arts hall where people are listening, not drunk, is fabulous. It’s the greatest, really.”

Now five years into his retirement as the No. 1 Host in Late Night, Leno has acclimated to a life shared on the road — away from the cameras, but much closer to the audience. “The Tonight Show was fun because we did different jokes in the same place every night, and when you go on the road you do the same jokes in a different place every night. It’s a disadvantage when I do the Tonight Show, like I tell a joke and I get a laugh. And then the next day I go – Oh, I got a better set-up, or a better punchline! I can never do that joke again, because I did it Monday night. I can’t do an improved version of it Tuesday or Wednesday.

"On the road, you can hone it or polish it. You’re excited to be trying out this newest version, and seeing how it works. It really is seeing which words go where to get a joke working perfectly. Seinfeld and I have this discussion all the time, there’s nothing worse than ‘Civilians’ trying to tell you a joke. ‘So this guy like goes into this place, right? So I goes in, right after him. And he goes’ – what do you mean goes? It-it-it drives you crazy! It’s basically a funny joke, but they’ve beat it up in the process. Just cut out all the verbiage, get it tight, polish it and then tell me the joke. There’s a way to it, you want to do it in the most efficient way possible. That’s really the difference. The attention span is really different. I think nowadays, you really need to have a joke every 6-9 seconds.”

While Leno’s love of his old talk show digs has been heavily documented, the comic offers an openly optimistic view on his work and his world. “The great fun is waking up every day, thinking of something new, and trying to figure out how I can make this work. There is sad news pretty frequently, but that’s only because they choose to give you the sad news. You know something, if you go back 75 years… 80 percent of the world was starving to death. Now I think its like 9 percent. More people are being fed, more people are being taken care of… there’s no doubt, horrible things happen in the world. My favorite example of this is one day I’m watching the local news here in Los Angeles. And the lead story was ‘Shark Attacks Up 100 percent Worldwide’ – and I’m going, let me go out to the pool! Jesus Christ. But the story was, well last year there was 3. And this year, there were 6! That’s worldwide. 6 shark attacks worldwide! I realized that is 100 percent increase, but… is it really?

"We have the ability now to know if a five-year-old gets hit by a bus in China, and now my day is ruined because I just saw this terrible story. So I’m somewhat of an optimist. I’m not an idiot, I know there are problems. Democracy is in danger… OK. But the world functions because most people choose to do the right thing. More people make the right decisions every day than make the wrong decisions. I always say, sociologists will tell you 1 out of every 600 people is a criminal. So if you live in a neighborhood of 600 people and you don’t catch that guy – you got a crime wave! It’s that one guy, but he’s committing all the crimes! It’s true! I don’t mean to sound naïve, but people do good things every day. We do a lot of benefits, just the other day we did the Boys and Girls Club, and people with not a lot of money gave a lot of money. People who were plumbers and carpenters - we ended up raising $150,000 something for the local Boys and Girls club, and it was great!”

For the growing generation of streaming stand-up bingers who’ve never seen a show live and in-person, the performer who has famously been reticent to record his act, offers his blunt assessment. “You know its so funny, there is so little actual human contact interactions, I was remember when with the internet, they said it would bring us all together! But in a lot of ways, it has drawn people apart. It’s really the difference between standing outside a nightclub, looking in a window and watching the performer, and then being on the other side of the glass. It suddenly becomes a shared experience. I hear friends say to me, I watched this movie Avatar, and it wasn’t anything. And I ask how’d you watch it – I watched it on my iPhone. Well, if you watched it on your iPhone, you’re really missing the whole point of the movie. It’s like with the comedy specials on Netflix, people say to me, I saw a couple of comics and they weren’t funny! I say, you’re watching it by yourself on TV! If you in the room, having a shared experience, maybe the person next to you has a funny laugh, so you’re kind of laughing at that. It really is the difference between night and day.

"The thing I like about stand-up is it’s probably the oldest, most un-technical form of entertainment. With the exception of a microphone for amplification, it really hasn’t changed much since the town crier. People talking to other people… er, well, people talking AT other people.”

Through his Tonight Show post, Leno helped launch the careers of many of the country’s biggest comic voices – but he’s quick to admit that his relationship with the next generation is a two-way street. “The great thing about comedy is, you can’t play every gig, every day. There’s plenty of room for everybody. People always think it’s the horrible cutthroat business. It’s not. When I was coming up, Steve Martin went out of his way to bring Johnny Carson in to see me, so did Harvey Korman. When I made it a little bit, I told Johnny about Ellen Degeneres. He went down to see Ellen Degeneres, and Ellen got her show and became famous. There’s a lot of people like that. I enjoy meeting young comics and talking with them and stuff. You sort of give them the benefit of your expertise, and vice versa. I always tell young comics to watch my act, tell me what’s old. I used to have a thing that was something about ‘being small.’ It was not a big house, about the size of a Fotomat booth. What’s a Fotomat booth? Then I realized, oh, I’m old. Get rid of that, nobody knows what a Fotomat booth is – do you know what a Fotomat booth is? It used to be a little booth in malls where you could drop off your film. But it’s just funny, you realize you gotta keep it moving. You gotta keep it fluid, you gotta keep it reasonably young and accessible.”

Against the grain of many stand-up’s conventional wisdom at the moment, Leno is in no rush to push a special on any network. In fact, Leno seems to spend his energy debating himself on the intricate choices of every yarn. “You really work it one sentence at a time. I had one joke where I was trying to figure out where to put the word ‘now.’ The joke was: ‘Amazon says within five years, the packages now delivered to your home will be stolen by robots.’ Now, is it funnier as ‘the packages delivered to your home will now be stolen by robots?’ Or, where does ‘now’ go? You try it a couple different ways because you realize there is a right
place for it. You realize where the audience needs to pause for a second to take it what you just said. OK, now you flip it around. You go literally one word at a time. Most comedians work on two to three minutes a week. If you working on two to three minutes a week, that’s very good! First of all, it has to work everywhere. It can’t just work some places.

"The biggest mistake most comedians make is: you know I did this joke about three years ago on a college and it killed. Yeah, but it hasn’t worked since – just get rid of the joke! That was the fluke. Biggest mistake people make is going to place to where they know they’ll do well. You hear this all the time, the comedians that only do colleges. Well, if you’re funny, you should be funny to everybody. It should work everywhere. I’m not saying, only go to old folks homes, but in general – a joke that works 50 percent of the time is not gonna make you famous.”

Between his CNBC car-centric series Jay Leno’s Garage, frequent spots on NBC standards like America’s Got Talent and the Today Show and the occasional pit stop at his old stomping grounds (now tended by Jimmy Fallon) – Leno appears to have another secret passion: Netflix. Never caught off guard, the King of Comedy offers some hot takes on his latest streams.

On Seth Meyers’ Lobby Baby, which offered viewers an option to skip the Late Night host’s jokes on Trump: “I think that’s fun. Seth is great. He’s really an excellent wordsmith. He uses every word effectively, nothing annoys me more than when on a comedy special, the comic goes: ‘Everybody doing good? WOOH! How ‘bout Denver? Yeah! Denver!’ And I go: get to the God damn joke, would you? Jesus Christ! They just waste time.

"To me, real comedy is the economy of words. Its using the least amount of words to get to the punchline most effectively. I watched that special, it’s very good. And it’s not the type of material anyone could steal, because it comes from his life. I think there are people into [political material] and there are people are not. We’ve somewhat lost the ability to laugh at ourselves. But I find if you make fun of both sides kind of equally, then I think you get through it pretty well. I don’t think anybody wants to be lectured to when they go to a show. I mean, if I go listen to a singer, I don’t want to hear 20 minutes on his political views, because I don’t care. I’m there for the songs. I used to joke years ago: it’s like a hooker than can cook! That’s great, but I didn’t come here for the sandwiches.”

And on Eddie Murphy, both in his Oscar-worthy turn in the Rudy Ray Moore story, Dolemite Is My Name and on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: “Eddie’s great. I watched Dolemite, it was really funny. For Eddie to do a nude scene at this age, God bless him. You do anything for the laugh. Eddie was always one of the greats. And 20-25 years go by, and a whole generations forgets how great he was, how funny he was. I watched him on with Seinfeld on those cars with coffee, and he’s throwing out little impressions, little asides, and they’re really spot-on. He’s really, really funny. Every generation is suspicious of the last. One of my favorite ads was always – Today, people are concerned about value. My parents just threw money in the street, because they had no idea. It’s that conceit that comes with youth, it always makes me laugh. Oh yeah, we’ll never make that mistake again. WE can’t be fooled! Cut to: The Fyre Festival.”

As joyfully as the affable star looks back on his many encounters with greats across the spectrum – looking back doesn’t really seem like Leno’s style. That said – on the subject of great jokes that have aged out of relevance, the master shares some personal gems, though your mileage may vary. “One of my old favorites that I thought was a pretty funny joke was on Time Life. They used to have a thing out called The Gun Slingers. A Time Life thing on The Gun Slingers. And they said, Billy the Kid once shot a man just for staring at him. And I updated it to the newest version – John Hinckley Jr. once shot a President just to impress a pretty gal."

“And there are some jokes that are just fairly timeless.  Those are the ones you want, those are evergreen. One, OK, this was a while ago but a kid in China was born with the vestiges of a third eye in the center of his head. And today, Lens Crafters said they could make him glasses in about an hour and a half. A joke like that. You know I had a gig up in Alaska not too long ago, and this worked pretty good, I was up in Alaska and it’s like 40 degrees below zero. In the hotel, even the windows are like four inches thick. It’s the kind of thing that if you threw a glass of water outside, it would freeze before it hit the ground. And yet I went into the thrifty drug store, and the ice cream was still soft. I don’t understand how that could be!”

The famously middle-of-the-political-road comic offers guidance on the virtues of the a-political laugh. “You know, I enjoy that kind of stuff because it has no political ramifications. People aren’t getting your opinion on abortions to get the joke. You know it's funny and you learn to play an audience like an orchestra. I don’t remember the Hillary Clinton joke, but it used to get this real guttural laugh, which I hated. And I realized, they’re not laughing because they think the joke is funny, they’re laughing because it’s a Hillary Clinton Woman joke. It just got this HUH-HUH WOOH-WOOH kinda response.

"Every once in a while, you lose the perfect joke. I remember when Michael Jackson died, I had a great Michael Jackson joke.   It was when Hillary was running for President. Hillary verses Obama at the time. I said: Americans don’t have to choose between a black man and a white woman… that’s a decision Michael Jackson makes every day of his life. It got a big laugh. But then the elections over – D’oh! Then you gotta throw that joke away, oh, I love that joke. You can never do it again. You just gotta keep moving.”

Jay Leno will perform at Jones Hall at 615 Louisiana on Friday, December 6.  For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit $39-$99.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, or trying to hustle up a few laughs himself!
Contact: Vic Shuttee