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He moved the show to a more intimate studio, ordered up a new set that allowed him to connect with his audience, borrowed some of Letterman’s more successful comedy concepts (notably the outdoor “remote” in which the host leaves the studio to have zany interactions with the masses), and doubled the length of his monologue (Leno’s obvious forte as a stand-up comic: “Even when our show was down-and-out, and people said, ‘This sucks, take it off the air,’ they added, ‘but after the monologue’”).
Reflecting on his dismal early days at Jay says, “I’m one of those people who always has to touch bottom before I start going up, just to get a sense of perspective.”“I always had the image of Jay, before he caught up with, and then passed, Dave, as the guy in the rearview mirror,” says Mavis Nicholson Leno, Jay’s wife of 16 years, a pretty, dark-haired woman who met her husband at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
received an astronomical rating—more than twice the usual four million households—and introduced millions of new viewers to a reinvigorated Jay.
It was the English film star’s first major appearance since his sensational arrest in Hollywood while being fellated by a prostitute in his rented BMW.
“I actually sit here laughing at this—first he’s just a speck, then he’s a little bigger, and then this guy in the mirror is alongside and in the passing lane.
Then the other guy is in the rearview mirror.”Mavis, the daughter of a journeyman actor, didn’t expect Jay to get rich in show business, either.
“Some comedians feel that if everybody doesn’t get the joke, they fail—and I probably fit into that category,” he says.
At 46, with a thick mane of graying hair, he looks surprisingly sleek and well rested.“I don’t know,” says joke writer Jimmy Brogan, Leno’s loyal sounding board at these nightly séances. And in his cramped office at NBC, and over a dinner at Koo Koo Roo, a fast-food restaurant where he waits on line with the other customers, he has patiently explained his views of art and life.
They toss the rejects and recyclables into a big ceramic bowl on the coffee table before them.
Every so often Jay rouses himself and goes into the next room to check his fax machine—to see if any fresh material has arrived from the joke writers working the graveyard shift. “It’s a long holiday weekend, so I guess nobody’s working,” Jay says.
“The sad thing is that Dave all his life wanted to get insider.
“If he’d been given that opportunity, CBS would have made a deal with Jay, and he would have lasted for four or five months, and it would have been like Chevy Chase.
I know comedians who think they fail if everybody gets the joke. This is a lame joke, because everybody gets it.’ My thing is, always try and make it accessible to everybody.” Jay goes on, “You can fight windmills and tell people it is funny, but if they don’t laugh, they don’t laugh. Anybody can get a laugh with a good joke.”Increasingly, it seems, Jay’s jokes venture into the bedroom and bathroom—scatological territory he once prided himself on avoiding.