Jay Leno might be known for laughs, but he’s also responsible for some pretty notable numbers.
He spent more than 20 years behind the desk of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, taking over for Johnny Carson. For the bulk of his tenure, he had the No. 1 late-show in late-night.
But here’s a number commonly associated with Leno that most people might not be familiar with: 200. That’s roughly the number of stand-up comedy performances Leno has done every year for years, even when he was hosting The Tonight Show five nights a week.
It was decades of performing as one of the premier stand-up comics in the country that helped Leno land arguably the best “desk job” in show business. Now, when he’s not indulging his hankering for all things hot rod on his CNBC show Jay Leno’s Garage, he’s hitting the road, cracking up crowds. His status as a stand-up veteran also makes him a bit of a comedy elder statesman and showbiz mentor, dishing out advice to young comedians and up-and-coming performers.
Leno will makea rare Central Kentucky appearance Saturday night, performing in Richmond at Saint Mark Catholic Church’s final “An Evening Among Friends” fundraiser, a series of events that brought Dolly Parton and Harry Connick Jr., among others to Richmond. The series is closing because the tenure of the Rev. Jim Sichko, the event’s organizer, at Saint Mark is ending.
You just try to play all different kinds of places. They all have something in common. They all laugh at certain jokes. When you find a joke that works in certain areas, you have a joke that you can do anywhere.
Many people relate to Leno because of his everyman persona, whether he’s sporting various shades of denim shirts or getting his hands dirty working under the hood of one of his many cars. But what has led to Leno’s success as a stand-up comedian before, during and after The Tonight Show is his ability to craft comedy for any audience.
“I booked myself into Oral Roberts (a Christian university in Tulsa, Okla.) just to see if I could play the room,” he said.
At a time when he sees some comedians going to where “their crowd” is, he continues to hit the road, write new material and fine-tune his act with each performance so he can make any crowd his crowd.
“You just try to play all different kinds of places,” he said. “They all have something in common. They all laugh at certain jokes. When you find a joke that works in certain areas, you have a joke that you can do anywhere.”
Here’s what fame does. Fame gives you the first 10 minutes free.
Earlier in his career, Leno was a popular stand-up comedian. But after The Tonight Show, his name recognition, fame and number of fans grew exponentially.
But he always made a point to do stand-up. Unlike his talk--show gig, comedy clubs aren’t equipped with “applause” signs. He said the stature that a show like The Tonight Show provides won’t keep a ticket-buying comedy crowd laughing through an entire set.
“Here’s what fame does. Fame gives you the first 10 minutes free,” Leno said. “Being well known just gives you the benefit of the doubt. They just assume you’re going to be pretty funny.”
But Leno has never wanted to just be “pretty funny.” He said in his early stand-up days, he would deliberately go on after comedy legend Richard Pryor at clubs just to hone his act and see how his material stacked up. His love of and dedication to the art has him writing and performing until “every single thing you say gets a laugh.”
The idea of putting in the time, regardless of fame, is what he likes to instill when he gets to chat with the next generation of comics, making sure they don’t just ride a YouTube clip of material to get to the next level.
“I see kids now who have five minutes’ worth of material. What happens is a lot of these guys rocket to the middle,” Leno said. “I always tell comedians, if you can make it to the stage for seven years, you’ll be successful. It’s a discipline. It’s a business, and you have to look at it like a business.”
Throughout his career as both a stand-up comedian and a talk-show host, Leno has had a soft spot for military people and public servants. It’s a big reason why he is coming to Central Kentucky this weekend.
He has had several conversations in the past with Sichko, whom he calls a “character.”
“He’s been asking me to do this over the years, but because of The Tonight Show, I wasn’t able to do it,” Leno says.
His schedule and the event’s cause aligned this year when he heard this year’s event was a fundraiser for the family of Richmond Police Officer Daniel Ellis, who was shot and killed in the line of duty in November. In addition to his appearance, Leno plans to auction off tours of his garage to benefit the Ellis family. He says that over the years, doing work for a good cause is one of the few things that is comparable to getting a good laugh.
“The best stress reliever in the world is really doing a kindness for someone else.”