Penthouse Retrospective

by Phil Berger Originally Published: June, 1993

Jay Leno

For the King of Late Night Comedy, the best place is halfway between where you left and where you’re going. But for millions of his fans, he’s already reached that destination.

King of Late Night

Jay Leno and Julie Strain“I think there are very few things that are more fun than making 500 or 1,000 or 2,000 people really laugh. Jerry Seinfeld and I always used to laugh about why you would take a vacation when you should just go somewhere and do your act. What would be more fun than that?”

No plume of smoke arose from the NBC studios in Burbank, California, last May to signal a succession in that network’s late-night papacy. But when James Douglas Muir Leno took over as host of “The Tonight Show” after the 30-year reign of Johnny Carson, it was an event that fairly cried for pomp and circumstance.

What the hell. For 30 years Johnny Carson had made the show a television institution, not to mention a thriving business proposition. According to Broadcast Advertisers Reports, dur­ing the 1990 — 91 season, “The Tonight Show” netted $98 mil­lion in advertising revenue.

That success meant that as the man who followed Carson, Jay Leno bore the cachet of comedy big — time: A fellow doesn’t get to occupy that late-night chair in Burbank without it being understood that he knows how to crank an audience for laughs. In Leno’s case, that legitimacy is grounded in decades of working before live crowds all over the country — from jerk­water comedy clubs to the neon — bright Las Vegas casinos.

Along the way, Leno has won a reputation for dependability. As a comedian who speaks plainly — and with language free of obscenity — about the everyday stuff of life, his material is accessible to all  sorts of folks. Listen: “In New York City they’re handing out condoms to high school stu­dents. Gee, I thought it was a big day when I got my class ring.”

“People laugh at Ted Kennedy, but how many other 61-year-old men do you know who still go to Florida for spring break?”

“McDonald’s now has 16-year-olds and 60-year-olds working side-by-side. It’s part of their cradle-to-­the-grave minimum-wage program.”

For Leno the road to late-night stardom began in his hometown of Andover, Massachusetts. The son of Angelo (an insurance salesman) and Catherine (a housewife), Leno was a classroom cut-up who used humor to enliven an educational experience that seemed otherwise pointless to him.

Yet for lack of anything better to do, he enrolled at Emerson College in Boston, and while there began to try stand-up comedy, regularly driving to New York to test his material in showcases like Budd Friedman’s Improvisation.

Back in Boston he occasionally landed low-paying gigs, many of them dispiriting enough to discour­age ordinary ambition. But not long after Leno graduated from Emerson, he quit his day job working for an auto dealership and headed to Los Angeles to roll the dice as a full-time comedian.

By 1977 he had made it to “The Tonight Show,” the first of several stand-up appearances there. But when he found his impact diminishing for lack of material, he took his act out on the road. Through the mid 1980s he was one of the busiest working comics, doing as many as 300 performances a year. That willingness to ply his trade paid off. Leno created reams of material and developed the ability to please a wide audience.

What made Leno so appealing to NBC executives as the heir apparent to Carson was his demographics. As a regular guest host, the likable Leno not only held the graybeard con­stituency that favored Johnny, but broadened the audience to include the younger viewers who had previously steered clear of the show.

Jay Leno reveals his personal experience with the not-entirely-glamorous world of the comedy circuit in his early days. His take on the late-night wars may surprise you.