Penthouse Retrospective

by Phil Berger Originally Published: June, 1993

Jay Leno

I hon­estly believe we wouldn’t have had a lot of the problems we did had I been more closely involved from the get-go.

Did you always dream of being where you are now?

I came from a small town in New England, where you didn’t think in terms of going into show business. Show business is probably the only business where people who know nothing about it feel free to give you advice. I remem­ber I had expressed some interest in it, and my friend’s mom said, “You know, you can’t be a comedian unless your father was a comedian — they have a comedians’ union.” I just said, Really, is that true? “Oh yeah, in Hollywood there are all these stagehand unions you can’t get in unless your father was one, so if your father was a comedian … “

So you did have some interest?

I was always interested in it, but it was never a viable alternative to getting a job. Quite recently, about five years ago, I was back home visiting all my friends, and my friend’s mom said to me, with all seriousness, “Now, if the comedy thing doesn’t work out, do you think you’ll come back and try to find something in our area?” I mean, she was legitimate. She meant, God bless you, you’re doing good, but if it doesn’t work out, do you think you might move back to our area and try to find something steady and regular?

Did you always know you were funny?

I remember always having the ability to make the teachers laugh. In fact, I’m still friends with most of my high school teachers — that’s the fun thing about coming from a small town. My wife grew up here in the San Fernando Valley, on the other hand. Not only is the school not there anymore, the hill it was on isn’t even there, and the street is rerouted. It’s like every six months Los Angeles goes into the witness — protection plan. Everything changes. But when I go back to my hometown, most of my teachers — if they have not retired — are just stepping down now.

Did you get into much trouble when you were a kid?

Car stuff, but when you grow up in a little town it’s so different. I remember a friend who went around and put sticks of dynamite in mailboxes. The cops would just pull him over and say, “Okay, where’s the dynamite? Okay, go home now, you crazy kid.” Today you’d of course be a terrorist.

When did you really start in comedy? Well, in college I had a roommate named Gene Braunstein. We’d laugh at the same things and we put some bits together and then we started going out and playing the coffeehouses in Bos­ton. There was an ad in the newspaper that said, If you think you’re funny, call this number. It was for an improv group called the Fresh Fruit Cocktail. So I au­ditioned and got it, and Gene didn’t. That improv group only lasted about six months, and by that point I didn’t like the idea of having to always de­pend on six other people. So I audi­tioned at New York’s Bitter End.

What happened?

They said to come back during the week and work for free. My father said, “They’re not paying you? Give me his number, he’s got to pay you!” I said, No, Dad, don’t call the guy, please don’t! So anyway — I’ll never forget this — I get there on a Tuesday night and there’s about 14 people in the audience. Un­beknownst to me, of course, my fa­ther’s called all the Italian relatives in Boston and New York to tell them I’m going to be at a nightclub making my debut. So I hear all this commotion and I look and I see my grandmother, who speaks no English. I see my uncle Louie, who’s got this big coat and looks like something from The Godfather. He’s shouting, “What do you got to drink in here? What kind of drinks you got in here?” Meanwhile, this guy’s singing onstage and the MC’s asking, “Who are these people? What are they doing here?” All they had to drink was a sort of herb tea, you know, those hippie drinks. And I remember my uncle Louie — ”What the hell kind of drink is this? You can’t get a drink here? Scotch and soda?” It was just like a nightmare.

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.