I suspect that most people don't appreciate what it takes to be a stand-up comedy star like Jay Leno. But that's no surprise: Even some performers don't see what sets him apart from--and above--the crowd.
At UC Irvine's Bren Events Center on Tuesday night, Leno made his funny business look effortless, carefully developing routines that often seemed like spur-of-the-moment witticisms.
Some pieces actually were impromptu creations: He built one good five-minute bit around the absurd-looking bronze statue of an anteater--the university's mascot--outside the Bren Center.
"Were you people the last in line to pick a mascot? Let's see what's left: crab . . . slug . . . you want the anteater?"
Unlike Eddie Murphy, who is a great skit comedian but a wildly undisciplined stand-up performer, or Steve Martin, who abandoned stand-up to be a comic actor in films, Leno is that rare comic who remains thoroughly satisfied to stand alone on a stage and make people laugh.
To all except the most ardent followers of the comedy circuit, Leno can seem to be a newcomer who only recently stepped into the national limelight from appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and "Late Night With David Letterman."
You simply don't see the years of polishing, focusing and endless refining that have gone into his act. He just comes across like a naturally funny guy.
If you were at the Laff Stop comedy club in Newport Beach on Monday night, though, you might have a better picture of how the comedy world's other half lives, how big the gap between the two really is, and how many years of unrelenting work can lie ahead for a roughshod aspiring comedian.
At the Laff Stop, 10 local comics, 10 would-be Lenos, stood trying to coax smiles out of a sparse, frequently indifferent and sometimes hostile audience.
If "The Tonight Show" is where a comic diamond like Leno is showcased, clubs like the Laff Stop are where so many lumps of coal are unearthed. And there can be something invigorating about sitting in front of a bunch of unknowns hoping to see a glint of the next Jay Leno.
It takes persistence, of course--as much for the comedy connoisseur as for the comics themselves. Hanging out in the comedy bush leagues is not only often a mirthless task, it can be downright painful.
From rock and classical music to opera and theater to ballet and comedy, I don't think there's anything worse in the world of live performance than watching a comic flop. At least in a bad concert, the performers have a certain amount of sound with which to buffer themselves from the audience. But there is nothing quite like the naked silence that smothers a comedian who is dying on stage.
And be prepared: At this level, the genuine laughs are few. Part of the problem is the audience itself. Leno is a proven star, and his 3,000-strong crowd arrived primed to laugh with him. Often in the clubs, audiences sit back practically defying the performer to elicit a chuckle.
When one guy who had generated only isolated, polite chuckles early in his routine tried to warm things up by asking: "Do you want to hear a clean joke or a dirty joke?," the devastating response came back: "How about any jokes?"
Maybe that's why Leno, as popular as he has become, still lets young comics open for him at shows like Tuesday's. No matter what pinnacles of success comedians such as Leno may reach, I can't imagine they ever could forget their years in the trenches trying to hone a unique act while fending off wrathful hecklers.
A relatively original approach doesn't guarantee a performer anything. Consider provocative deadpan comic Phil Fleischmann, a guy who looks like he just staggered out of "Night of the Living Dead." He makes the phone company lady who tells you what time it is seem absolutely effervescent. His offbeat act clearly underwhelmed the equally stone-faced Laff Stop crowd. Yet the following night at UCI, as one of three campus Comedy Club members who landed opening slots for Leno, Fleischmann got a great response from the Bren Center crowd with the same bit.
Ultimately, though, it is not the audience but the comics themselves who must shoulder the responsibility for how their acts go (or don't go) down.
At the weekly new-comic nights at the Laff Stop, each performer gets a maximum of about 10 minutes on stage, but few filled even that much time with solid material. For every spark of real comic talent, there were too many attempts at passing off stale or bone-headed observations as fodder for laughs.
Like one guy who said he figured out why you can never get a decent shopping cart at the grocery store: "The bag people have all the good ones." Maybe there is humor in the plight of the homeless, but blaming them for hoarding shopping carts isn't my idea of wit.
Nor are jokes that begin, "I have nothing against homosexuals (or blacks or Mexicans or women or fat people) . . ., " and proceed to denigrate them.
When Leno opened fire on fast-food outlets that boast about hiring the elderly as well as teen-agers--"Isn't it good to know you can make the same money when you're 80 that you make when you're 16?"--he wasn't insulting the aged, but he was illuminating one of the very real indignities awaiting senior citizens.
What so few comedy freshmen seem to miss in the work of skilled pros like Leno is that their humor reveals--and helps soften--universal human foibles. It doesn't pander to basic failings such as bigotry.
It is a crucial distinction that is a natural part of the maturing process in comedy. But while envying Leno for scaling comedy's highest peaks, it is every bit as important to sight not just where he stands (up), but how he got there.
So aspiring comedians of the world: take Jay Leno . . . please.