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Joke Scientist

COVER STORY

Jim Brogan Can Tell You More Than If Something Is Funny. He Can Tell You Why.

February 22, 1998|ROY RIVENBURG | Roy Rivenburg is a Times staff writer

We are camped out in Jay Leno's den in the dead of night, listening to him test jokes for "The Tonight Show" and witnessing a rather alarming transformation. At first, he is merely barefoot. Then, as the hours wear on, he begins unbuttoning his shirt. Now, sprawled on the couch reading jokes, he unbuckles his belt and unhooks the top button of his jeans. And I'm thinking: "Is he just trying to get comfortable here or--dear Lord--does he do his best work in the nude?"

Fortunately, the other person in the room is Jim Brogan. As Leno's (fully clothed) alter ego part of Brogan's job is helping "The Tonight Show" host avoid displays of questionable taste. He's also the funniest guy you've probably never heard of.

Having spent years behind the scenes helping such comics as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry Miller sharpen material, Brogan is L.A.'s premier "joke scientist." His latest incarnation, in addition to his own stand-up career, is as Leno's comedy consultant--dissecting, analyzing, adding or subtracting ingredients and generally trying to make sure the lab doesn't explode.

"Jay calls me the vice president in charge of monologues," Brogan says. "I guess I'm just a heartbeat away from doing the actual monologue myself."

He is also among Hollywood's most baffling figures: He doesn't swear (even offstage), doesn't drink and has never inhaled. He earns a hefty, mid-six-figure income but drives a Toyota Tercel and takes dates to El Pollo Loco. And his roommate is a giant ventriloquist's dummy he built himself.

"He's the last decent man," Seinfeld says. "Well, the last decent man in comedy."

*

Around midnight, two wild deer wander onto Leno's lawn. Inside, attention shifts from a pile of staff-written jokes to a cassette tape made earlier in the evening at Hermosa Beach's Comedy & Magic Club, where, most Sundays, Leno and Brogan try out material for the coming week.

"Great to be here," Leno quips to the crowd. "Glad I signed that stupid contract nine years ago. Now I'm host of 'The Tonight Show' and trapped in this dump every Sunday night."

In truth, Leno considers the gig a good way to keep his show from being written entirely in a vacuum. He and Brogan perform solo stand-up routines, then Leno spends about 10 minutes reading potential monologue jokes from a stack of 3x5 cards. ("The big new movie this weekend was 'Seven Years in Tibet.' It's about Al Gore's fund-raising in a Buddhist temple.")

Now, at Leno's home, they review the tape, detecting nuances of audience reaction that untrained ears miss. A joke about Bill and Hillary's 22nd wedding anniversary ("That's a long time to be cheating on the same person") gets laughs, but Brogan notes an undercurrent: "You can hear the audience turn."

Another gag draws a roar, but Brogan says the laughs fade too quickly. Both jokes go into the reject bowl, a large ceramic dish on Leno's coffee table that is soon overflowing. "You start out with 300 jokes and try to get it down to 25," Leno says. Brogan compares it to panning for gold. It's a tedious and surprisingly humorless undertaking.

"Did it seem serious?" Leno asks the next day. "Well, obviously you can't be all ha-ha. If you shoot porno films, you can't sit there with a hard-on all day. But that doesn't mean you don't like sex."

Still, there's a difference between liking something and being addicted to it. Five nights a week, Leno and Brogan stay up past 1 a.m., hashing over the next day's monologue. Then Leno resumes the task around 9 a.m. at his cramped NBC office. Brogan drops in a few hours later to help, watches the show tape at 5 p.m., then skips out to a local comedy club for his own stand-up set before returning to Leno's house at 10 for the next go-around. The show's 17 staff writers (11 of whom work on monologues, the rest on sketches) grind out jokes in two shifts. As soon as the show starts taping, they begin faxing new material to Leno's home. It's virtually nonstop.

Asked what he and Brogan do together socially, Leno busts up laughing. "When you do this job, you don't have time for anything social. I haven't done anything socially for six years."

Some observers say that unrelenting pace hurts the show.

Brogan concedes that "Tonight" tries to do a lot: Leno's monologues are twice as long as Johnny Carson's and there are far more humor sketches. But the audience demands it. "People seem to stay tuned more for comedy than for guests, so that's why we've added more comedy," Brogan says. To critics who say Leno has lost the edge of his pre-"Tonight Show" stand-up routine, Brogan adds: "What we're trying to accomplish every night is an unbelievable task for a comic. Most comedians spend weeks honing new material in clubs. Jay is doing 10 minutes a night of brand new stuff."

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