Jay Leno leads with his chin — and it’s quite a lead, given that he’s beaten his late-night TV talk show comedian competitor David Letterman for years.
It’s good to be king of late night, but Leno, the 62-year-old mainstream comedian from Andover, Mass., provides a crowning touch of being an exception in an extraordinary business. The NBC star and host of The Tonight Show has shown that nice guys can finish first; just ask the folks at Nielsen.
Or better yet, ask those already snatching up tickets to the talk-show titan’s scheduled Nov. 4 appearance at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Main Event (jewishphilly. org/ mainevent), being held at the Philadelphia Marriott Hotel.
Leno will headline the celebration doing stand-up as standout communal activist Stephen B. Klein gets honored that evening with the Joseph Smukler Outstanding Community Leadership Award.
A comedian of Scottish and Italian heritage to entertain at a Jewish community event? It’s time for headlines!
Leno laughs, getting the joke — and the reference to his Tuesday-night shtick showcasing headlines that turn logic on its head.
Just wait a minute, chuckles Leno; he’s no stranger to unorthodox comedic mismatches. “Years ago, when I worked in New York, I got a Catskills gig, and I pull into the hotel and I see a sign promoting my appearance as ‘Come Hear the Jewish Storyteller Jay Leno.’ ”
Tell the truth, a tummler he may be, but Tevye he’s not. “The rabbi comes out and I say, ‘Uh, rabbi, I’m Italian,’ and I wanted him to know I’m not the Chasidic comic they had advertised.”
But it was a perfect match that evening, he recalls. “Italian families, Jewish families — it’s the same thing,” muses Leno.” I go to my Jewish friends’ houses and there’s more food than you can eat.”
So, he asks, what could be more Italian than that?
But surely he’s developed somewhat of a Jewish sense of humor after all these appearances over the years before Jewish communal groups and federations. He’s also developed enough common sense to sense when a joke goes too far and when it’s best to pull back.
Politics as unusual? He’ll be appearing here just a few days before the presidential election. Is the Emerson College grad planning to come up with new cracks about the candidates?
“I’ll have to see what works,” he says. “Not all Jewish people think alike” when it comes to politics, he understates.
But you don’t have to be an electoral college grad to know some byproducts of presidential politicking always draw a big laugh, causing at least one fan to anticipate a big night Nov. 4.
“Jay is a master of stand-up comedy and will bring a much-needed infusion of levity into a highly contentious presidential campaign,” notes Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of the Jewish Federation.
As is the case every four years, truth could have been a contender, but got KO’d by fiction. No complaint from this comic: “Hypocrisy is always hilarious,” says Leno.
And so are twists on the tried and true — whether they come from the Midwest or Mideast. “An Israeli man’s life was saved when he was given a Palestinian man’s heart in a heart transplant operation,” Leno reveals of a headline he read.
“The guy is doing fine, but the bad news is, he can’t stop throwing rocks at himself.”
And then there’s this rocker: “Madonna is looking to buy a home in Israel,” he claims, “and today the PLO told Israel, ‘OK, you can have the land back.’ ”
Back in the day, laments the comedian, social mores were more polite. It’s a shame, says Leno, that, well, “there’s no sense of shame in the world anymore.”
And Hollywood is just as hollow if not more so. Avers Leno, whose TV couch guilty stars sometimes use to cushion the blow and bolster their image, Hollywood is “a place where bad behavior gets rewarded.”
Don’t count on Leno having any plaques touting him as “Bad Boy of the Year.”
“For the first half of my career, I had my mother to keep me straight,” he says of his revered late mom, Catherine. “For this half, I have my wife,” he says of social activist Mavis, his spouse of 32 years.
If he’s also married to his work — when not hosting The Tonight Show, Leno’s hitting the road doing stand-up; reportedly, he and his wife live off the box office earnings while he banks the TV salary — he’s proved to be a popular moving target.
“I don’t take it personally,” says Leno with a shrug in his voice of the press potshots pointed his way. “They really don’t know me, really don’t know who I am.”
Yes, the classic car enthusiast and onetime star of Collision Course (direct-to-video in 1989) has had image fender-benders; and the voice of the Fire Hydrant in Robots (2005) has had his share of yellow journalism streaming his way.
But some news proved to be fit to print: Leno’s behind-the-scene machinations to land The Tonight Show gig upon icon Johnny Carson’s retirement — Leno had served as Carson’s permanent guest host for years — were revealed in Bill Carter’s excellent The Late Shift, which detailed Leno’s laughless — at times shifty — tug of war and words with Letterman for the job in 1992.
Leno and Conan O’Brien provided Carter feral fodder for a follow-up book when this duo’s struggle for late-night supremacy led to Leno leaving in 2009, O’Brien arriving/departing and Leno returning to his late-night Tonight Show perch in 2010.
Entering the ring now is another contender: Jimmy Kimmel will soon put on the late-night gag gloves for ABC.
Will Leno take off his? Not Mr. Nice Guy. “Everybody is welcome,” he says of comedy’s next round of punches and punch lines as he preps for the Main Event on Nov. 4.