It’s hard to imagine your parents as young people. Like your Hermés scarf-swathed stepmother once sporting bellbottoms and traveling via hitchhiking.Or famous people picking up hitchhikers, like a certain classic car-hoarding comedian who once chauffeured people up and down the East Coast.
The year is 1972, young women have tossed their bras, young men have feathered hair, and both genders wear bell-bottom jean and platform shoes. The mood of the country is weighed down by the Vietnam War. My yet-to-be-stepmother stands by the side of the road, stick-straight hair, poking her thumb into the breeze as she tries to get from Boston to New York to visit my dad. A car pulls over, picks her up, and the two wheel towards Manhattan. He’s a funny guy and they strike up a friendship, making this same trip every now and again. He goofs around when they go grocery shopping and the cashiers laugh. She just thinks he’s silly.
Eventually she moves in with my dad and he goes to Los Angeles. “Really? You’re her daughter? Wow … where’s Barbara now?” asked Jay Leno, on the phone from LA. I don’t bother to explain the whole step thing.
Like my stepmother, Leno grew up in a small, Massachusetts town.
“If you weren’t in the clique in high school, you were a weirdo, an outsider,” he remembered. “I wasn’t a jock, I didn’t care about the football games…I worked at Foreign Motors on Mercedes and Bentleys and the rich people came in and people said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be the guy who takes care of those cars?’ and I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be the rich person?’”
Growing up, Leno’s dad was the manager at an insurance company and would hold monthly meetings and do some funny bits, which he practiced in front of his son. “I thought I would do something like that, but when I became a college student, I started doing comedy and in Boston there were thousands of students who could be entertained for not much…there was the whole ‘coffee house’ thing.”
He explained that back then, the country was focused on more serious issues and there weren’t a lot of comedians or even places that wanted comedy performers.
“I remember going into places, putting $50 on the bar and telling the bartender that if people left during my set, he could keep the $50, but if I was good, he had to give me back the $50…it was a matter of getting stage time. A very expensive way of getting stage time. I was able to be pretty bad for a long time.”
Eventually, Leno left cold New England for the golden promise of Los Angeles.
“It was fun, but I wasn’t meeting anyone in Boston who wanted to do what I wanted,” he said. “So many friends started to acquire things; they got jobs and couldn’t go to auditions—they’d get a car and have a car payment—and they became prisoners of material things.”
“I noticed in my apartment that I was starting to acquire things and I said, ‘I’m leaving right now,’ and gave the keys to the neighbor…If I had stayed I would’ve started buying things and having a life.”
He laughed, given his penchant nowadays for acquiring cars, but at the time, he lived off the land. After landing at LAX, he spent $80 of his $150 on a cab to Sunset Strip and found himself dropped at the wrong end of the excitement.
“I walked 10 miles, it was really odd, I had no plan,” he said. “I was arrested twice for vagrancy—the cops just put you in the back of the car and drove you around for the whole shift—but I met other people who wanted to do the same thing I did.”
Leno fell into a crowd that would be legendary—Letterman, Robin Williams, Freddie Prinze. “There was this burst of young talent,” he said. “It was an interesting time; there was this excitement of living 23 hours a day just for that 20 minutes a night you got to hone your craft. We meet, sit in our booth somewhere, and talk about the night.”
“You know, before 1970, comics were middle-aged older Jewish white guys from the Lower East Side who said ‘these kids today with their long hair,’” he continued, “and then suddenly, you had these young guys, like Carlin, who talked about Vietnam or made fun of Nixon. He had long hair and was the hippie comedian.”
Telling jokes and stories is simply fun, said Leno.
“You know when you hear a really funny joke, you can’t wait to pass it on? You’re just waiting at your desk for people to walk by so you can tell them? It’s the same thing now—I have a new joke, or a new bit, and I can’t wait to try it out.”
It would be easy for Leno to sit back on his throne of legend, stay home, and work on his cars, but he still plays up to 210 dates a year. “I love the shared experience,” he said. “People now experience comedy on their TVs while they are petting the dog, or texting, but it’s fun having life experiences and telling people about them.”
Back in that small town, in high school, Leno was an observer and he is still that observer today. “I’m not immersed in show business – it’s not like I had a table at Spago and oh! The Tonight Show ended and the table is gone.”
“I’ve been married 35 years and I have the same friends as I did in high school. I mean, Charlie Sheen is a friend and it’s hilarious to watch his antics every time a hooker pushes his car off Mulholland Drive, but I don’t want to be him,” Leno laughed. “Show business is like champagne—if you drink it all the time, you become an alcoholic. But, just a sample and it’s fun. I like to work on cars. Comedy is subjective, some people think you suck, some people think you’re funny, but if a car is broken and you fix it, well, it didn’t work before and now it does.”
These days, with his name being a known commodity, it’s about living up to the audience’s expectations. “Comedy doesn’t really make great leaps—you watch an old Valentino movie today and it’s slow and hard to watch; you watch a Chaplin movie, and it’s funny now, just like it was then. Comedy is like golf: you can do it ’til your 70s or 80s. But you have to be moving with the time—it’s creepy when a guy my age says, ‘So, I’m dating this chick…’ The difference is young people used to say, ‘I’m a big fan,’ then it was ‘my mom,’ and now it’s ‘my grandmother.’”
My stepmother went to one of Leno’s shows in the ’80s and brought me home an autograph that read “Hey Kim, Come to Hollywood! Be in Movies!” When reminded, Leno asked how that was working for me. Here in Columbus, I wait for Hollywood to come to me. If only I can find a ride to the show.