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Shout Outs to Jay Leno

September 22, 2010


To be perfectly honest, Jay Leno is not really my cup of tea.

I find his everyman quality charming, but ultimately his comedy doesn’t challenge my thinking the way comics like

George Carlin

or Bill Hicks.

But that being said, A LOT of North America disagrees with me.

Why then, would I go out of my way to dedicate a shout out to this guy?

I think Jay Leno’s career is a shining example of where hard work can get you. I grew up watching him on the Tonight Show, and it wasn’t too long before I figured out I was a Letterman kind of guy (later a Conan kind of guy). But what he does on the Tonight Show isn’t really the whole story.

It was only when I started getting into stand-up comedy that I started to realize just how important he was to the 70’s stand-up scene, and the real lesson he had to teach me had nothing to do with comedy. It’s about tenacity and perseverance. More on that in a mo (ment).

Here’s a cool clip of Leno back when he used to do guest spots on Letterman’s show. You can see that they were decently close friends and had a tremendous amount of respect for each other. It was only after Letterman lost out to Leno in the battle over who would succeed Johnny Carson that the rift grew (it’s a cool story) There’s something very sweet about these old clips, where two buddies who came up through the ranks together get to pal around on national television:

I do find one segment on the Tonight Show to be laugh-out-loud funny, and that’s the “Jaywalking” segment. Basically Jay hits the streets and asks regular people seemingly simple questions. Of course they make utter fools of themselves and hilarity ensues. When I was a kid I just couldn’t get over how dumb some of the people were, it seemed impossible. Now, knowing a little bit more about performance comedy, I really appreciate the riffing he does, and how he leads his victims into a lot of the more embarrassing stuff while still appearing to be on their side. Brilliant.

Jay Leno was an important figure in the comedy strike that took place in New York over fair pay for comics at The Comedy Store. A lot of people think the strike did more harm than good for the North American comedy scene. The suicide of comic Steve Lubetkin was a direct result, and its resolution marked the end of a period of scene-wide camaraderie that’s never really occurred since. Whether one strike can be blamed for all THAT, however, is for wiser peeps than me to judge.

I respect Leno for standing up to say “hey, this is an art form that deserves recognition.” And this was after he was already well-established and had very little to personally gain from the strike. It just bugged him that comics weren’t getting more recognition for their hard work.

If you’re interested in the legendary comedy strike both Richard Zoglin’s book Comedy at the Edge: How Stand Up in the 1970s Changed America and William Knoedelseder’s I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era cover the saga in great depth.

Further reading:

Jay Leno’s autobiography Leading with my Chin is a pretty quick read, and I surprised myself by how pumped I felt afterward. This guy used to walk into a club, slap a 50 down on the table and offer to let the booker keep it if he stunk. He never lost his money, and his brassiness opened a lot of doors. He used to drive down to New York all the way from Boston, do a set, then drive back home the same night. He thought nothing of driving 8 hours to do 5 minutes. Even today, he does the Tonight Show 5 days a week, and hits up casinos and clubs on weekends to do sets for “pocket change.” He doesn’t need the money, he’s just still madly in love with stand-up comedy.

Say what you will about his style, Jay Leno is a comic’s comic. Dude was FOCUSED, and he did it for the LOVE. So shout outs to you, Leno, for showing the rest of us what true hustle looks like.

The final reason to give Leno a shout out? LOOK AT THAT GOD DAMN CHIN.

At least he’s got a sense of humour about it:

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