Jay Leno, who played Friday night at the Universal Amphitheatre, has been just about bleached dry with media exposure over the last couple of months, but that doesn't take away from the considerable regard he's amassed from 15 years in the trenches of comedy clubs all over the country.
Anytime you hear his name brought up when people discuss comedy and comedians, he's always considered someone special. He's a favorite with entertainment insiders and pros, which is surprising because he doesn't play off the Borscht Belt-Vegas axis of American showroom comedy, he isn't self-consciously hip in the post-Lenny Bruce style and he isn't a manic jerk, which seems to be in style these days.
Why he hasn't had a greater commercial success (though his income reportedly is in six figures) might be summed up in a conversation overheard between two TV producer-writers. "I wonder why he hasn't gotten a series," said one. Said the other, with hyperbolic industry cruelty, "Because he looks like a pelican."
Leno's prognathous jaw and narrow face may not lend themselves to the preconceptions of what looks good on TV, but his journeyman work over the years has given him the hard preparation of a good club fighter who has worked his way up to a title shot against the odds that didn't like him because he wasn't glamorous enough or didn't have a killer punch.
Leno knows the value of language and imagery (of his big 1955 Buick Roadmaster he notes, "When you have an accident and hit your head on the dash they just hose it off and sell it to somebody else"). He's fast and clear and light--that is to say, he doesn't dwell on anything too long--and he doesn't put himself in front of his lines, so that your response to them is an assessment of him.
One of the refreshing things about Leno's act is that he's content to be an observer instead of a star. Another is that he performs the stand-up comedian's classic role of speaking in the name of good sense, which is another way of saying that he operates out of an awareness of realistic proportion that most of us tend to lose in the blizzard of media hype that surrounds us. For example, one of his opening remarks concerns First Lady Nancy Reagan's winning of the Humanitarian Award: "It's good to see that she beat out that scheming little . . . Mother Teresa."
Leno is an ironist. One of his quoted lines these days has to do with Hands Across America's May 25 attempt to raise funds for the homeless and hungry, when he says, in effect, "Is this how we achieve social change: standing hip-deep in the mud and holding hands with Robert Blake? Have we tried voting? "
But the deeper pleasure he offers is in defense of the sensible ways we try and do and see things in a society overrun by hype. Leno, who grew up in Boston, has the New Englander's flinty skepticism about things that in one respect translates into an older, more conservative rock-ribbed American point of view (Leno evokes American tradition without being right wing), and in another reminds us of things we know to be true or important--such as literacy--being squeezed out in a land where show biz starts at the top.
"TV Guide is now considered reading in America. I think that happened the same time ketchup became a vegetable." People magazine recently did a big spread on Leno but that doesn't stop him from labeling it "the bible for the illiterate."
Public expression versus private meaning--the meaning we think we know but don't see expressed --is the tension that informs Leno's act. Leno isn't a killer comic; he doesn't use himself up. His 90-minute routine was workmanlike, effective. He made people laugh. He restored his audience's sense of reality about family and jobs and sex versus the ludicrousness of so much of media expression ("Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone have opened up the acting profession to people who thought it had a speech requirement"). At the top of his act he rode on stage on a huge, cream-colored state-of-the-art Harley-Davidson, and at the end rode off, a throwback to the American horseman, the genial loner, the survivor.