Penthouse Retrospective

by Phil Berger Originally Published: June, 1993

Jay Leno

So I go onstage, and they’re sitting right in front of me, and I just stumbled through my act. It was just like a nightmare, hysterical.

What was the New York comedy scene like in the early seventies?

It’s interesting, because even the funniest comics you’d see, five years later they’d be doing the exact same act. I mean, it hadn’t changed, it was the same thing. The parts that didn’t work still didn’t work, and the things that worked okay never got any better. Come to think about it, that’s the strange thing about comedy. There are people that the first day we go, boy, this per­son’s good — and they never get any better. Then there are others. Like the first time I saw Andy Kaufman audition­ing — oh boy, I felt so sorry for this guy. Of course, he became a huge star.

Talk about some of the rough gigs you took in those early days.

One night at the lmprov, a guy comes up and says, “Look, I’m introducing a new product to a bunch of drugstore dealers called Freshen.” It was from Ja­pan … soft, moist towelettes you were supposed to use to avoid embarrass­ing rectal odor — that’s what it said on the side of the package. He said he’d pay me $75 to be at some hotel in New York where there were going to be 75 guys, and I would be introduced as the director of marketing. So I get a suit and tie on, and I get there, and the drugstore guys are just not interested in this ridiculous product. So the guy says, “Let me bring up my marketing director. “ Of course, I get up and I mention the product a couple of times and then I just go into my act — you know, McDonald’s and Nixon, what a jerk — and they just look at me. Nothing. Not a laugh. Then this guy stands up and says, “Of course, that was not a marketing director, but Jay Leno, a professional comedian.” Nobody ap­plauds, and I just hear the crowd go, Professional comedian? Professional my ass! Then the guy says, “Who would like to be the first to sign up? We’ll give a special deal to you.” But they just sort of leave one by one. Nobody signs, and then the guy goes, “Look, I’m telling you, it’s a hell of a deal. Look, let me level with you — I’ve got a warehouse in Jersey filled with a hundred thousand cases. Just take it — take it for free!” And he starts yelling at them, and I’m wait­ing to get my $75. Finally I said, Can I have my money? “Get out of here! Take a case of Freshen!”

Those were the days when you sometimes worked strip joints. What was that like?

Well, at that time there were two types of strippers: There were the ones that were over 40 who showed up in the morning with a work belt and power tools to put together their clear plastic champagne glass that they were going to take a bath in. These were women who made $1,000 a week by not being able to type. This is 1970, ’71, ’72, and although the women’s movement thing had started, these were women of a different era. These were women that made real good salaries and they invested it. They weren’t hookers, they weren’t prostitutes by any stretch of the imagination. Not to say there weren’t some that probably were, and there certainly were those that were ditzy and silly, but some of them were single moms and just women who … could either work in a fast food restaurant or make $1,000 a week doing this. And they were very protective because I was a kid.

Protective of you?

Yeah. I was onstage one night doing my act, and this guy was heckling me. I was working with Lily Pagan and lneeda Man, and lneeda was taking a bath in the champagne glass. And some guy was heckling me, like real bad, mean, and I remember she just got out of the bathtub soaking wet, walked over, just punched the guy in the face, and knocked him right out of the chair.

You said there were two kinds of strippers.

Some of the women — the ones who were like 18 or 19 — they would spend hours on their acts. I know this one girl who put together this little outfit, a little six — gun Annie Oakley kind of thing, top­less with a little skirt, and she practiced twirling her six — guns for hours, really thinking that the guys would be impressed.

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.