Stand-up guy: Mark Twain Prize recipient Jay Leno returns to his comedy roots

Geoff Edgers (c) 2014, The Washington Post. LANCASTER, Pa. — It’s pitch-black and starting to pour in Amish country. Jay Leno, the former “Tonight Show” host, the man who banked hundreds of millions of dollars as late-night television’s No. 1 attraction, isn’t being shuffled into a stretch limo by a phalanx of handlers.

He’s getting wet.

“Jay, can we get a picture with my mom?” a woman shouts.

“I can’t watch you every night on TV,” a man complains, as Leno signs a stack of glossy photos. “You should be back on.”

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By now, the rain has turned from spit to thundery storm. Water soaks Leno’s denim shirt and his thick swoosh of gray hair. Still, he works the line. About 75 people have gathered behind the American Music Theatre, where Leno has just done a sold-out show. They want to meet their hero.

Leno has every reason to avoid the meet-and-greet. He’s done three shows in three nights in three different states, wrapping up at the 1,600-seat theater in south-central Pennsylvania. But there’s no grumbling on this night. For Leno, this is a pretty standard weekend. He does 200 shows a year, and he does them by choice.

“I was a comedian before I had ‘The Tonight Show’ and I was a comedian during ‘The Tonight Show,’ and now I’m back being a comedian again,” Leno says.

The comedian. That’s Leno, 64, who on Oct. 19 will receive the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, joining a list of previous recipients that includes Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Carol Burnett.

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It’s a timely tribute for Leno, who, in February, stepped down after 22 seasons hosting “The Tonight Show” in favor of Jimmy Fallon.

The award is given to those “who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain.”

Over his career, Leno has certainly reached a wide audience, particularly the mainstream market known as Middle America. This skill made Leno the commercial king of late night. It also turned him into a punching bag. David Letterman, crushed when passed over in favor of Leno when Johnny Carson retired in 1992, takes swipes at him from his perch at CBS. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel has blasted Leno as a sellout “who hasn’t been a good stand-up in 20 years.” That came in 2010, after Leno, who had stepped down from “The Tonight Show,” returned after the celebrated flameout of his successor, Conan O’Brien. In that drama, Leno, the corporate lackey, was recast as bully.

Jerry Seinfeld, a longtime Leno friend, still bristles at the attacks.

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“There’s no story,” says Seinfeld. “Conan’s ratings on ‘The Tonight Show’ are not a secret. It’s like Hurricane Sandy. We can chart exactly what happened here.”

For Bill Maher, the O’Brien debacle provides prime evidence that Leno is anything but a showbiz weasel. In fact, he could probably use a handler.

“The reason Jay Leno lost his job twice when he was No. 1 is because he had nobody whispering into the ears of those idiots at NBC,” said Maher. “Whereas Conan had somebody saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get rid of that old guy.’ “

Jay Leno doesn’t act like a star. He travels alone, carrying his own garment bag with his suit. In his typical uniform — denim shirt and jeans — he walks into the closest restaurant in Lancaster, orders a rack of ribs and fills a plastic cup with soda from a self-serve dispenser.

He is approachable and warm to all, partly because that’s just his nature.

Presenters at Leno gigs don’t get riders demanding chilled San Pellegrino or bouncers guarding the green room. One time, Leno says, he was so low-key with a booker, he showed up to find no microphone. “You said you didn’t need anything,” Leno remembers being told, adding that he did the show unamplified.

“Show business is not that hard,” Leno says backstage in Lancaster. “People make it difficult. I don’t want to be a pain in the ass.”

He takes the same approach to interviews. He doesn’t brush off questions, even personal ones, even those about his bank account. Leno famously saved all of his “Tonight Show” checks — he made more than $25 million a year for much of his tenure — while using his stand-up money for living expenses.

In Lancaster on this night, he’ll walk away with close to $125,000. Other nights, he earns $200,000.

“Which is stupid, isn’t it?” he says with a smile. “It’s hilarious.”

Seinfeld, who also tours relentlessly, said that he and Leno consider stand-up a lifestyle.

“I’ll never forget a conversation Jay had about a friend of ours who was planning a bicycle vacation in Ireland,” he says. “And we were just like, ‘why would you rather do that than be at the Punchline in Atlanta?’ “

Why not slow down a bit?

That’s just not in Leno’s DNA, says Mavis Leno, his wife of 34 years.

“First of all, he loves doing it better than anything else he does,” she says. “And also, his father, in the last couple of years of his life, he was having trouble with his ankle because he fell off his house when he was re-shingling his house when he was 79. It’s in his family. The whole male side of his family is like that. I think that whatever he had done for a living, he would be doing it still, and doing it until he dies.”

If Jay Leno has a vice — he doesn’t smoke or even drink coffee — it is inside a group of warehouses on the edge of Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California. This is his garage, where Leno and a handful of master mechanics restore and maintain the comic’s impressive collection.

“This,” he jokes, walking through the space, “is my Malibu beach house.”

It is immaculate, museum-clean, though a working garage. Walking in one morning, he asks one of his guys to check the oil on a ’61 Chrysler 300G he just bought. Leno has steam engines and racing cars, 130 automobiles in total and 92 motorcycles.

Listening to Leno’s endless and enthusiastic stories about his collection, it’s only natural to ask: Does he like talking cars — he’s done that on a Web series, “Jay Leno’s Garage,” and is negotiating to do a prime-time car show on CNBC — more than he enjoyed “The Tonight Show”?

No, he says, the shows are just different.

“I like this because it’s more a passion,” he says. “When you’re talking to Batman on ‘The Tonight Show,’ you’re not really talking to Batman. When you’re talking to an engineer, you’re talking to a real engineer. Show business is fun to observe. Don’t immerse yourself in it, though.”

If you’ve read the attacks on Leno in recent years, you may be shocked by one undeniable truth. Jay Leno is still funny. Very funny.

To see Leno’s act is to hear Yo-Yo Ma play Bach or watch Clayton Kershaw drop a curveball across the plate. Offstage, Leno shows his age. He’s got a gut, and the lids of those piercing blue eyes start to grow heavy as the day wears on. He walks with a limp, the result of a broken toe that never healed. But those frailties disappear at showtime.

Like some comedy superhero, Leno needs just eight minutes in his dressing room to refresh. He reappears in a crisp, dark suit and sharp, purple tie. He holds a stack of $20 bills as he takes an elevator to the stage level, tips for staffers working the gig.

In Lancaster, Leno performs for 90 minutes. He glides gracefully, microphone in hand, tossing out voices, hand motions and perfectly timed kickers. Even his most dated material — a bit that refers to retired NBA basketball player Tim Hardaway’s homophobic 2007 rant — slides down like a slice of buttery cinnamon toast.

To be Middle America’s master comic means keeping his language clean without being afraid to throw in bedroom humor.

“Happy birthday to Hugh Hefner,” he starts in Lancaster. “He just turned 88 years old. You might remember, a year and a half ago he married his 26-year-old fiancee, Crystal Harris. Or as she calls it, bedpanning for gold.”

A few lines later, he’s on to Internet porn.

“When we were kids, pornography was like Christmas or your birthday. It came around maybe once or twice a year. We didn’t press a button to get instant pornography. We got on our bicycles, rode two miles into the woods where there was an eighth-grade boy and a filthy magazine wrapped in wax paper under a log. You know what I’m talking about! It wasn’t good pornography, but by God, it was all we had!”

On a night like this, just another in the middle of nowhere, you wish Kimmel could sneak into a back row and watch the craftsman of cadence at work.

“Let me tell you, the difference between Jay and all the other hosts is that he’s a stand-up comedian and a pure stand-up comedian,” says David Steinberg, himself a veteran of 130 guest appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” “He is as good as it gets at the craft of stand-up.”


Jay Leno was born to do stand-up. Growing up in Andover, Massachusetts, a suburb 30 minutes north of Boston, Leno hated sports, struggled in class and found himself drawn to pranks — pouring water into the Kotex dispenser in the girls’ bathroom was a favorite — more than books. Though his grades were poor, he wasn’t lazy. Leno often worked two jobs at the same time, flipping burgers at McDonald’s and helping in the garage at car repair shops.

His father, Angelo, an insurance salesman and the son of Italian immigrants, taught him to work hard and treat others well. His mother, Catherine, born in Scotland, became an endless source of comedy material, forever skeptical of her son’s burgeoning career, so frugal she once brought him a wrapped-up half-sandwich she had saved from her flight to see him in California.

Leno begged his way into Emerson College and began doing stand-up in strip clubs. In 1974, he joined the steady stream of aspiring comics heading west in hopes of appearing on “The Tonight Show.” A break from Johnny could change your life.

Soon, Leno was a leading figure in a group that included Letterman, Richard Lewis and Elayne Boosler.

“In the old days, 20 of us would go on in a row,” Boosler remembers. “It was always Jay who would come and have a boom, greatest take on the day’s highlight. You couldn’t stop him.”

Leno got his first shot on “The Tonight Show” in 1977 and became the permanent guest host in 1987. During the 1980s, Leno also regularly appeared on Letterman’s “Late Night” show, complaining about life’s indignities and playfully joshing the show’s host. (Letterman: “I don’t really need to be out here, do I?” Leno: “That’s what I’ve been telling the network for 18 months.”) Years before Kimmel mocked Leno by doing his entire show in a badly applied prosthetic chin, Letterman had writer and performer Chris Elliott impersonate his comedy club pal.

Leno’s last Letterman appearance came in 1992, just before NBC chose him to succeed Carson, a decision that sparked a best-selling book, Bill Carter’s “The Late Shift,” and an HBO movie with Kathy Bates deliciously playing his reviled former manager, Helen Kushnick.

Today, Leno doesn’t understand the fuss.

“I was guest-hosting for five years and NBC made a decision,” he says.

You won’t hear Leno unleash on his competitors. Four years after “The Tonight Show” mess with O’Brien, though, he remains hurt. (Kimmel, O’Brien, Letterman and shock-jock Howard Stern, another frequent Leno critic, declined requests to comment for this story.)

“None of these people who commented in the paper called and said, ‘Hey, tell me your version of what happened.’ I had Patton Oswalt on the show. Talented guy. Good actor. All of a sudden he’s going on and on about Jay did this, Jay did that. He never asked me. Nobody ever asked.”

To hear Leno tell it, he was “devastated” when, in 2004, NBC executives told him they were going to give O’Brien “The Tonight Show.”

“But I did say it was fine because I’m a company man,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll be magnanimous here. I’ll step aside.’ “

When Leno started getting offers from other networks, the NBC executives locked him up for a 10 p.m. ET show. “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” premiered in June 2009. “The Jay Leno Show,” airing at 10 p.m., premiered in September. Both shows struggled in the ratings.

“So they said, ‘Would you do a show at 11:30 and we’ll move Conan back to 12,’ ” remembers Leno. “I said, ‘Whatever you want.’ Conan didn’t want to do that, and he wrote a letter and quit. So I got the show back.”

Should Leno have called O’Brien at some point and offered a shoulder to cry on?

“Nobody called me when they took it away from me,” says Leno.

It was Fallon who finally took “The Tonight Show” from Leno, without drama. Leno said he’s amazed by Fallon’s skills, particularly his musical bits. Leno can’t imagine doing Neil Young doing Iggy Azalea or staging a lip-sync contest with Gwen Stefani.

One other thing he admires.

“I don’t see Jimmy Fallon trashing other hosts.”

In the dressing room in Lancaster, the show over, Leno stands in his underwear, scrambling to change back into his denims for the ride to the airport. He’s almost embarrassed to admit he rents a small plane. With his schedule and a slate of shows outside major cities, he simply can’t fly commercial.

“I can tell which material is fading,” Leno says, reflecting on the show. “The iPhone stuff is fairly new. That seems to work. The Larry Craig jokes get a couple laughs, but I think that’s just about done. I’ve got to get some NFL stuff in there. The Ray Rice one is tough. It’s punching a woman. What’s the joke? Take the escalator next time? I’ve got to figure out where to come from on that one.”

He’s asked about the crowd.

“It doesn’t get any more Middle America than that,” he said. “I don’t quite get people who have contempt for Middle America. A crowd’s a crowd.”

Outside, he embraces his fans. Then, a stagehand drives him to the tiny, regional airport. In the car, Leno talks about his mother and her prudish nature. Her refusal to ever again watch Orson Bean after the actor appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and talked about having sex with his wife. He raves about what he considers “the best film ever made about show business,” 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd,” with Andy Griffith’s portrayal of a drifter turned television sensation.

He sadly mentions Lindsay Lohan’s self-destructive behavior and then praises actress Elle Fanning. She always sent him a thank-you note after an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”

As the car approaches the airport gate, Leno’s asked about the world he operated in for decades, even if he never felt quite part of it.

“I enjoy observing it. I don’t really want to live it. You know, showbiz is like champagne. If you drink it every day, you become a (expletive) alcoholic. I go to my garage and I work. You talk to regular people.”

He pauses, looks up at the runway, delighted that the timing of the car ride has set up the perfect punch line.

“… He says as he gets into his private plane.”

The Mark Twain Prize will be awarded in a gala ceremony in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall Oct. 19, with a national broadcast Nov. 23 on PBS.