Penthouse Retrospective

by Phil Berger Originally Published: June, 1993

Jay Leno

Like anybody cared that she could twirl these six — guns, but it’s amazing how naive you are as a kid.

What do you mean?

I remember I was talking to this one girl and she said, ’’After the show, come in the dressing room.” So I walked in and she’s completely naked, and I was like, how you doing? I was thinking, Gee, should I ask her out or should I … You know, as a kid you’re just so naive. It doesn’t hit you that the woman’s completely naked, she’s asked you to come over, and you’re thinking, I don’t want to be too forward, so what’s the right way to do this?

So how’d it end?

Nothing happened, of course. I had an incident like that when I was working at the Rolls — Royce dealership in Massachusetts. I was 19 years old, and you don’t see the opportunity when it’s in front of you. I was supposed to drive this wealthy woman home, she was exactly what you would expect — Chest­nut Hill in Boston, very wealthy, had brought the car in to be serviced. I was the wash boy and I drove her home, and she was attractive, but she was like 38 — 1 mean, so much older than me. She kept saying suggestive things, which of course went right over my head, and we get to the door, and she said, “Well, would you like to come in?” I said, Oh, gee, I’ve got to get back. Nice meeting you, Mrs. So — and — so. And then she just went, “Nice meeting you, “ and she gave me this real toasty hand­shake. On the way home, I realized, Gee, I wonder if she was coming on to me? You’re so stupid as a kid, it goes right by you. You have no idea.

Your next move was to L.A.?

As soon as I got here, I realized, Well, this is where I have to be. I’m probably the only person I know that loves L.A., but I do. I always felt that I should go to the next place, and this seemed like the next place. It’s just very odd to me to come here with a fairly conservative background and just sort of be a voy­eur watching everything that goes on. I remember when I first got here, I didn’t have a car and I’m hitchhiking on Santa Monica. Some guy stops. “Hi, how you doing? Century City?” and then he’s got his hand at my knee. “Oh,” I said, “I’ll get off here.” That guy’s weird, I thought, and I put my thumb out again. Another car stops, same thing. “Where you going, Century City? Oh, good, so why don’t you slide over?” I said, “What?” “Why don’t you slide over here?” “Slide over? I’m okay here.” I didn’t have the slightest clue. I get out, I still have no idea. Another car stops, and as we go along, this guy starts talking the same way, and we pass a guy who is wearing just a leather thong bikini with one of those leather hats on. The driver says to me, “That’s what I like about you­you’re not as obvious as that guy.” “As obvious as what guy? What do you think is going on?” And I. realized, Oh jeez, these are like gay hookers. They think I’m a hooker. Hey, what did I know? Everybody in Boston hitchhikes. It took me three car rides to realize what was going on.

What made you move to L.A.?

It was around 1972, and I was in Boston watching “The Tonight Show “ right after it had moved to L.A. And I saw this comedian who I thought was terrible. So I said, that’s it. I took some cash and stuff and I just walked out of the apartment and I got on the plane and went to California. I just left and never went back for anything. It seemed to be the right thing to do.

Is it true that NBC tried to change your appearance in those early days?

Yeah, that actually happened. I went to an NBC casting meeting before I did “The Tonight Show,” and they thought I should be blond. I remember some­one said, “You know, you should get your jaw rehung.”

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.