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The past, present and future of comedy

By Tim Wassberg


Jay Leno has seen it all. From his early days as a comic to his success succeeding Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show to his continuing stand-up act, Leno has always done it his way. The texture with him is respecting the past but also representing and understanding the future. Leno sat down with Casino Player to discuss change, the art of the set up and the importance of community.

Casino Player: You’ve played Vegas for many years. The town has changed, as has the globalization of society. Can you talk about how that has altered your approach to comedy?

Jay Leno: It’s been a long time playing in Vegas. I remember going to Caesars Palace and thinking, “Why did they this build this hotel out here in the middle of nowhere when everything is downtown?” That’s how long ago it was. It was Caesars, and then the Flamingo across the street, and then there were like seven miles of nothing until you got Fremont Street. And I thought, “Well, it’s weird that they would build this place way out in the middle of nowhere.” I mean, that shows you how farsighted I am. (Laughing.)

People today also want comic material in “easy-to-digest” bits. Can you talk about how that style of storytelling has changed? And has it changed the way you do things?

Well, you know what? The thing that’s really changed for the better? And I think it’s actually better because when I first started, Vegas had dinner shows. And a lot of times, if you opened for Tom Jones or somebody – a stipulation in their contract, [was that] all plates had to be off the table before the main act came out. So when you walked out as an opening act it was clang… bang. I mean just constant noise of silverware or people trying to eat quickly, you know? And plus you had seats that did not face the stage, that went the other way because people were sitting having dinner.

[After that] Vegas went to these theater-type settings, like performing arts centers. The great thing about that was, if you’re a performer, it’s the best sound… it’s the best light in the world. I mean, these are all union shop guys. They know what they’re doing. All I need is a microphone. A number of times I’ve played theaters around the country where its “beep” can you hear me? Beep. Can we fix –beep. Can we fix – beep. Can we fix this? Beep. I mean, it’s crazy. I’ve had sound go dead. I’ve had mics not work. That doesn’t happen in Vegas. You really do have the best equipment, and the best theaters. I mean, I think it’s so much better now. People are actually paying attention. They come in to see your show. They sit down. They don’t have three drinks in front of them. They’re not drunk. They’re there to see a show, and to listen. And so, as a performer, it’s really the greatest place in the world.

Now, versus that time, when people were knocking back God knows how many Manhattans and martinis, can the comedy be more subtle in this day and age? Or does comedy, at its best, need to be broad?

You know, it’s different, because when I started in Vegas, I was always playing to someone else’s audience. The funniest one was [when] I had two weeks with Tom Jones at Caesars Palace. And so, the first night I go out, and there are 300 members of the Tom Jones fan club in the first like 15 rows. Unbeknownst to me, they bought tickets to every Tom Jones performance. So on the second night, it’s the same 300 women. Okay. They just heard the act last night. Plus when you’re a fan of a big star, in your mind the opening act [translates to] “Tom would be out a half hour sooner if it wasn’t for you. You’ve taken time. Tom would be singing now if you hadn’t decided to come out and tell jokes.” That’s kind of what you deal (laughing). Believe me, by show nine of the two weeks, these 300 women could do my act. I mean, it was hilarious. So it’s not that audiences have become more or less attentive. The fact is that eventually you attract your own audience. When I was a kid in my early 20s playing Vegas, I was playing to guys in their 50s and 60s. You look like a kid. You’re not talking about things that are relevant to them. Now the audience is sort of my age group or obviously younger so you can connect a little bit easier because you have a bit more life experience.

Can you talk about when you first felt that transformation happen? When you started to make that sort of bridge between those two generations?

Well, I think it happens once you start to headline. My thing was I started when there [was]… I’m old enough to remember when there were lounge acts, and when I would get to do my own show in the lounge, 200- seat or whatever, it was great because people had seen me on Letterman or whatever it might have been… Merv Griffin. They would come to see you and you’d go, “Oh. This is great.” And I’m not fighting someone else’s crowd. These people are here to hear what I have to do. That was probably the turning point. But I’ve always enjoyed it. I mean, it’s been a great town for me. And The Mirage has become sort of “the” comedy room. It’s between 1400 and 1500 seats so it’s just perfect for comedy.

And the audience is growing more diverse especially with the correlation between the boomers and the millennials, whom many think are a reflection in some ways of each other.

You know what’s funny. Comedy doesn’t change much, you know. If you were to ask someone to listen to songs of the 20s, or watch a silent movie from the 20s, or a love story from the 20s, it seems interminable. It just goes on and on and it seems slow. But if you watch [Charlie] Chaplin or [Buster] Keaton or Laurel and Hardy, they really are just as funny now as they were then. Comedy is just comedy. The clothes are different now or things like that but, for the most part, it’s pretty much the same. Rodney Dangerfield is probably the best example. Nobody is more old-school than Rodney. Right up until he died at age 83, millennials, young people, kids, they all related to Rodney because the jokes just kept coming. It was just boom, boom, boom, boom. And it might have seemed old school. But funny is funny, you know? It’s like something offensive. If it’s really funny, is not that offensive.

That’s the one thing I liked about Rodney. I actually just heard a story about him the other day. You have to have confidence to do what he did. To be that self-deprecating, and to be able to come out in your bathrobe and say, “Hey, it’s me.” For him to be able to do that…

Well, Rodney was good. I love Rodney. I’ll tell you a funny story. I was with Rodney, oh just a couple days before he died, and he was probably in a coma and he couldn’t speak. And Joan [his wife] was there as was I. And Joan said to me – Rodney’s lying there – she said to Rodney, “squeeze Jay’s finger if you can hear him.” I put my hand under his hand and started to say something and I felt Rodney squeeze. And I said, “Rodney, that’s not my finger.” Then I could see, maybe it was my imagination, but I could see that he thought it was funny, even though he couldn’t really add to the joke. It was a Rodney moment. It was just stupid.

But see, that’s such a human thing. That’s the kind of interaction I’m talking about. There was much more of a community before because people would go see each others’ acts and stuff like that. Do you think that art is lost?

You know, sometimes when I play The Mirage, a bunch of the guys will come around and I’ll try to see them, [people like] Seinfeld. We all know one another. I mean, you can’t do every gig every day. It’s not like a movie where one role comes up and every actor in Hollywood goes out for it. I mean if it’s Vegas or wherever, there’s a show somewhere in America every single night. One comic can’t do them all. You know, Steve Martin brought Johnny Carson to see me. And then when I made it, I brought Johnny Carson to see Ellen DeGeneres and a bunch of other comics as well. I mean Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, they were great to me. They helped me and consequently I try to help other comics. I find it to be a pretty friendly business. I mean, there’s always going to be little things but for the most part, everybody’s pretty supportive of everybody else.

But what about the art of the set up? How has that changed?

Well, sure. When you watch Bob Newhart on The Tonight Show let’s say in the mid-’70s, he’ll take a minute, maybe even a little bit longer, to set up the story. If he did it now, within 10 seconds, it would be “Hey dummy!” But once people know your rhythm, they get to understand the stuff that comes around. And with Bob Newhart, he was always funny, so you didn’t mind waiting a little bit longer to get there, you know?

Well, can you talk about the aspect of when you look at your material now? I mean, as you said, everything is cyclical. How you write? How people ingest it?

The trick is not to know more than the audience – it’s to know exactly what the audience knows. The golden age of comedy was the Carson years because most people didn’t understand Syria, or what was going in Israel or Palestine. But, by golly, everybody knows a guy like Bill (laughing). Every woman knows… Suzy’s husband is like that Bill guy. I mean you always break it down into easily understandable things that make sense. I can remember when Iran-Contra happened. You couldn’t give the story away until Fawn Hall hid the documents in her panties and snuck them out. Then suddenly those are the panties to get. Where did she buy them? What make were they? And then the whole thing exploded. Most people don’t have these kinds of burning issues but, by God, if they’ve got a barking dog down the street and they don’t know what to do about it… That’s kind of what you need to do with comedy. You don’t want to talk over the heads of everybody. I mean I always found, doing The Tonight Show, once again that past the Secretary Of State, nobody knew [who] anybody [was] in Washington. So you had to say, “You know the guy in charge of commerce? You know this guy, “whoever it may be”. And you always had to put the title in to help cue them into the joke. And a lot of comedians will complain, “Oh. The audience is stupid.” No, they’re not stupid. You just didn’t bother to set it up properly. Ultimately, it comes down to you. You’re the performer. If the show doesn’t work, it’s your fault.

And lastly, Vegas – and to a lesser extent Los Angeles – is like a dream world for most people but you also have to play to those regions. Can you talk about what playing in Vegas has meant to you over the years and how you see Vegas?

The greatest thing about Vegas now is that everybody has access to the Internet. Everybody has access to the same information. The idea that some guy from Iowa’s going to be sitting in the audience with a piece of straw in his mouth and a pair of coveralls… I mean, that really doesn’t happen anymore. And if it does, he’s probably pretty smart and knows what he’s doing. I mean, that’s sort of the difference. Vegas gives you a real cross-section of America, which is what I like. You have every conceivable type of person there and they’re getting to see you under the best circumstances possible. I mean I know I can feel an audience and where they are. I mean, to me, instead of saying “President Bush was an asshole”, I would say, “President Bush… I don’t think he quite understands this particular issue.” And then the audience just starts to laugh waiting for the gag. But that’s just my way

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