The first time I encountered Jay Leno, I was with Werner Herzog.
We were in the green room of Letterman Show back in the days when it was at NBC. I had booked Werner there for “Fitzcarraldo.” There were four of us in the room: Leno, Herzog, Letterman regular Calvert DeForest* (aka Larry “Bud” Melman) and me.
The pint-sized DeForest went out first, followed by Jay. I was dimly aware of Leno as an up-and-coming standup guy working the clubs. He was sweet as a choirboy and I introduced him to Werner, who I doubt he had ever heard of. Leno had brought along some wacky props, and I remember thinking, “this guy sure works hard.” After being warmly greeted by Letterman, he did his funny business with the props. “He’s good,” said Werner. I agreed: Jay was good.
The only thing was, DeForest, who, as Melman, appeared to be a genuinely oblivious-to-everything man, had killed.
The second time I saw Leno I was with Roberto Benigni. Through a recommendation from Jim Jarmusch, I became Roberto’s publicist when he was doing publicity for Blake Edwards’ “Son of the Pink Panther.” Roberto was given his own little waiting room, and Leno (or his producers) had thoughtfully provided Roberto with a big basket of Italian food and wine to make him feel more comfortable. It was a nice touch, and I thought, Leno is still making the extra effort, just like he did with the props.
Soon after we arrived, Leno himself turned up in the room. “Wow,” I thought, he’s really making the extra effort. He told Roberto that he wanted him to feel totally free to do anything he wanted. After he left, I told Roberto, “I think he wants to make sure you walk on the auditorium seats like you did on Letterman.”
I’m sure most of you know how talk show producers prep a host like Leno for interviews. They call the “talent” in advance, fishing for surefire anecdotes, so the host knows he can ask the set-up question (usually on note cards) and wait for the surefire anecdote to unfold: “I heard a funny thing happened on the set… etc.”
The test of a talk show host lies in how little they rely on the cards. For the good ones, it’s just a fail-safe. If you watch Leno, you’ll see that he’s a note cards kind of guy. And when he does respond in a spontaneous way, he never goes for the jugular, like Letterman often does. Leno is always at his best if he is familiar with the guest, and at his worst if he isn’t. For example, Gabby Sidibe went on Conan, and the blogosphere went crazy, calling it one of the most hysterical appearances in the history of the show. Gabby went on Leno and it was (sorry Gabby) snore-inducing.
Roberto’s note card fodder was solid. He had recently leapt on top of a top female Italian talk show host. The way it was explained to me is she was a very dignified, Diane Sawyer-type talk show host. As I understood it, Roberto somehow got her down on the floor—how?—and he was on top of her. Don’t sue me if this isn’t completely accurate. Whatever happened, it caused a big to-do and got in all the papers.
So the first card on Leno’s table was: “So Roberto, I heard you had an incident on a talk show in Italy…”
“You know, that thing that happened with the talk show host…”
Roberto looked at him blankly. “Talk show?”
Leno was confused. “Well, you do have talk shows in Italy…”
“No, we don’t have talk shows in Italy.”
“So what do you have, Roberto?”
“We have [something in Italian].”
“And what are they like?”
“Exactly like this,” said Roberto.
It was now the Roberto Benigni Show. There was nothing that Leno could say that Roberto couldn’t run rings around. Whether you like Roberto’s comedy or not, his mind works at warp speed, spinning out absurd statements in a tide of illogic. Leno doesn’t possess that kind of brain. He is an amiable man who works like a dog with a staff of writers to come up with great material for an opening monologue, heads out in the street to do formulaic routines, and so on. In this case, he wanted to make sure in advance that Roberto walked on chairs, and then sat down on a couch to tell his story about the Italian talk show host and set up the clip from “Panther.”
Letterman, like the only other undeniably great talk show host, Johnny Carson, is always on his game. Whatever you do, you are on his show. Even when Joaquin Phoenix did his dead fish routine on Letterman, Letterman rolled with it and made it funny. And he is never afraid to make a guest uncomfortable, whether they’re Paris Hilton or John McCain. Letterman is a spontaneous improviser with impeccable instincts and he always drives and puts his stamp on whatever happens.
What is the most memorable moment in Leno’s career? Without question it is the “What were you thinking?” query to Hugh Grant, after the actor was caught with a hooker. First of all, this was something obviously concocted in advance by the writing staff, and archetypically Leno-like in its warm-hearted lack of judgment. And that’s why Hugh Grant chose Jay’s house to make his apology to America and get his career back on track.
It’s the gap between Leno and Letterman that may account for why millions of people adore Leno and many comedians despise him. They’ve felt that way for a long time; the Conan debacle just pulled the gloves off.
Leno simply isn’t funny. Not in the way that Letterman or Chris Rock or Woody Allen or Ricky Gervais or Larry David or Joy Behar or Craig Ferguson is funny. Being funny is their essence. It just flows out of them—they don’t need jokes, props or preparation, they just need to be. Conan and Kimmel play it way safer than Ferguson (who has no written monologue, just an outline) but they sure as hell are a lot funnier people than Leno.
Everybody has their own list of funny people and it can change at different points in their lives. Not every comedian has staying power. Early in his career, on “Mr. Show,” Jack Black did things that I found breathtaking; now, everything he does falls flat for me. These days, Zach Galifianakis absolutely kills me. The cast of “30 Rock” is all brilliant, but if I see Jack McBrayer in a shot—even in the background, doing nothing in particular—he not only makes me smile or even laugh out loud, he makes me really happy.
Personally, I could care less that Leno isn’t funny, and neither does most of America. He’s given me years of joy as the friendly and reliable postman, punctually delivering the canned zingers with timing honed over decades of club work. The truth is, he probably works a hell of a lot harder than many of the naturals.
I believe so many people who were born funny resent Leno’s success is because each night, as he enters the “Tonight Show” stage, the supreme gig for a comedian, he reminds them that this is an unjust world.
* Calvert DeForest was discovered by Letterman in an NYU student film called “King of the Z’s” (a mockumentary about a notorious low-rent film producer), written and directed by Stephen Winer and Karl Tiedemann, two former classmates of mine at the University of Wisconsin, who became Letterman staff writers.