Leno has never done an HBO special (though he did do a Showtime special in 1986, "Jay Leno and the American Dream"). In his long career, he has never put out an album. Once, he says, he did a show called "Norm Crosby's Comedy Shop," but it broke a rule he's tried to live by: "If you want to hear the jokes, I will come to where you are and do them."
Leno got his first "Tonight Show" spot in 1977. He did several more in the ensuing months, but by then he'd burned his best material, and it took him seven years to get back on the show. This was in the day when comics lived to do "The Tonight Show," when a single spot changed a career overnight. But try as he might during that drought, Leno couldn't meet the approval of the late Jim McCawley, Carson's chief stand-up talent scout. "I was frustrated and pissed off like all the other comics who can't get on," Leno says of those days.
Now that he's host of "The Tonight Show," comics see Leno as an even less forgiving presence. With few exceptions, he does not use stand-ups on "The Tonight Show," and comics and their managers have been howling about it for years. "It's very disappointing to a lot of people in the comedy community," says one veteran manager of the perceived "Tonight Show" embargo on comics. Says another: "I don't even know who books [comics] over there."
That comedians have become an afterthought on late-night talk shows is hardly Leno's doing. In Carson's day, there was but one place a comic could introduce himself to the nation at large. By the time Leno took over "The Tonight Show," in 1992, the appetite for stand-up was well on its way to burnout, thanks to all the clubs and cable TV's demand for cheap programming.
Today, however, a spot on Leno or Letterman still matters--the credit can mean thousands of dollars in headlining work on the road. And though Letterman has reduced the number of stand-ups he puts on too, it is Leno who remains the focus of the animus. It is Leno, not Letterman, who is deemed too ratings-obsessed. It is Leno, not Letterman, who is supposedly threatened by the prospect of someone funnier than him on his own stage.
But it is also Leno, not Letterman, who picks up the phone and talks about the issue, however much you may think his answers are a dodge. "I'm at a disadvantage because I talk to everybody," he says. "You don't have to talk to a publicist to get to me. And when you go to the other side, it's, 'Well, [Letterman's] not available.' "
And so, Leno will tell you he uses stand-ups in sketches, that big names such as Billy Crystal and Robin Williams are regulars in the guest chair. He'll maintain that many comics work too dirty for his show and that others aren't willing to work hard enough to make their material "Tonight Show"-friendly. He'll lament that outlets like Comedy Central have bred laziness among the ranks of today's young stand-ups, and that comics of his generation expect favors.
He'll tell you about the minute-by-minute pressure to keep ratings high.
"There's nothing I would love better than to be blown off the stage [by a comedian]," he says. ". . . I get this all the time, [managers saying], 'Well, we personally feel that Jay is afraid of our client. But I've made my money. It's all gravy at this point.
"I listen to them bitch and complain, and I don't disagree. I understand. I like comics as people. . . . It's hard having somebody say, 'You know, you're good, but your product needs to be honed or changed.' I resented McCawley. The trick to getting on 'The Tonight Show' is, good performance and good material, so if either one fails you, the other one will carry you through."
Leno has a way of talking and talking about a subject until you can't tell how he feels, or if there is any feeling at all. "Whatever you don't like, it's all my fault," he said several times.
He was talking, I think, about "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." He wasn't being defensive or angry or confessional; in fact, he wasn't being much of anything, and it was a little maddening. It was like having an argument with yourself. So go ahead and rail against Leno and his comedy to your heart's content. To steal a line from a Doritos commercial he once made: "Crunch all you want, we'll make more."