Penthouse Retrospective

by Phil Berger Originally Published: June, 1993

Jay Leno

And I thought, well … “We break the jaw and we rehang it and set it and give you this and this.” And I said, Okay, how long before I can talk? “Oh, no longer than a year, maybe a year.” I said, A year? I can’t talk for a year? “Well, maybe nine or ten months, prob­ably a year.” How could you not talk for a year? But the strange thing about show business is you feel like Huck Finn at his own funeral — people talk about you in front of you as if you’re dead. You sit there with agents and managers — ”He’s just not attractive enough for television on a regular basis. Maybe if his hair was blond and you broke his jaw ….

What was their motivation?

Helpful advice. “We just feel you would be frightening to children. You’re very dark, you have very dark features. We feel that you would be menacing to young people.”

While living in L.A., you were doing 300 gigs a year. How do you have a social life with a schedule like that?

You don’t. Occasionally, you get lucky. Among comedians there are certain things — you know you’re going to do well any time a woman says to you, “How do you remember all that stuff?” Well, that’s it. You’re in. I talk to Seinfeld, and we laugh about the early days on the road. That’s the standard, whenever a woman says to you, “How do you remember all that stuff?” Well, that’s it. You scored already.

How did you get so into cars and bikes?

If you came to my house, and if you didn’t know what I did for a living, you’d probably think I was in the car busi­ness. I don’t have show — business memorabilia. I always liked cars and motorcycles. I always liked things mechanical. I mean, to me, the best place to be is always halfway between where _you left and where you’re going. I mean, my most fun part of the day is driving to work. Because you’ve left one place and you’re not at the next place.

Do you know how many vehicles you have?

I’ve got about 40 motorcycles and about 16, 17 cars.

And what’s the pleasure in collecting them?

Well, if you’re not a car guy, it’s a bit like trying to explain heterosexuality to a gay person. “What is it, the breasts do what? They’re very attractive, they are? Do you view them or touch them?” You either get it or you don’t. I mean, I would have liked to have been a great machinist or a great engineer, but I just don’t have the patience for it, nor the talent. There is something that comes with working with your hands that gives you a sense of honesty that you don’t get in other sorts of professions.

Are there any other pleasures in your life?

No.

Who would be on your all — star comedy team?

Oh boy, you’ll get me in trouble on this one. Well, you know, there are peo­ple who are good comedians and then there are people who are really funny. I mean, there are people who can sit down, know what they have to do to go on television to get something to work, and then there are people who are naturally funny Seinfeld makes me laugh. You know, when I talk to Jerry on the phone, inevitably I come up with something I can use somewhere because it’s just an ad — lib, and I think he does, too. One spurs the other on.

You trigger that in each other, you mean?

Yeah. You know, you just have conversations and it’s just stupid. We just make each other laugh. Anyway, get­ting back to the all — star team: Letterman, certainly Letterman. My friend Jimmy Brogan, a writer on my show. Brogan’s very funny. Robert Klein was always to me the epitome of a great comic. George Carlin certainly. If I go past ten, I’m going to be leaving out, I’m sure, a lot of funny people, but I mean, those are the ones that make me laugh. Carson, certainly, of course. Paula Poundstone is dynamite.

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.