I may be wrong, but that’s my take having worked with Leno and kept an eye on him through the years.
Because of that relationship, I got a call from KSHB TV last Thursday wanting to interview me about my Jay Leno show at the Music Hall in April 1986.
Ostensibly it was Leno’s first appearance in KC so Channel 41 sent a reporter and cameraman to my house in Lawrence to record a piece for the station’s 5 p.m. newscast on Leno’s last night as the host of the Tonight Show (KSHB being the local NBC affiliate.)
While the television audience got the first bite, obviously I saved the best for you guys.
so here’s my pull-no-punches story:
For starters, it was a show that never should have been booked. Some friends and I had started a small promotions company called Firm Productions. Our mission; have a little fun, make a little money and maybe take advantage of the dark nights ahead at Kemper Arena with the Kansas City Kings NBA team leaving for Sacramento.
Little did we know…
I won’t bore you with the many hard luck lessons we were taught by veteran promoters like Chris Fritz, but after experiencing some modest successes with The Happy Together Tour (Turtles, Grassroots, Buckinghams and Gary Lewis and the Playboys) and a Romantics show, a former classmate named Rick Brown approached me about helping him to book a date here with Leno.
Frankly, I’d never heard of the dude – for the most part I don’t do mainstream TV – but Rick was trying to get a toehold in the comedy biz but had no credentials or experience to enable him to book an act like Leno. So armed with what I thought was Rick’s money and Firm Production’s meager credentials, I agreed to help Rick put on the show.
Little did I know that after I booked the date with Leno at the Music Hall for April 19, 1986, Rick would back out. Something about his dad – Eugene D. Brown of residential real estate fame – nixing Rick’s involvement, as I recall.
Basically, I was stuck.
I could either bail and make Firm look bad with what was then a big talent agency, or press on with my partners and do the show anyway. Unfortunately, I chose the latter.
Fledgling promoters that we were, we worked hard and landed radio (KCFX FM), television (WDAF TV) and corporate sponsorships (Video Venders). We produced and distributed good-looking posters and handbills, both radio and television spots and arranged for a number of interviews and promotions with other local media. We even flyered the cars at Kemper at a packed Bill Cosby show.
Trouble was, not many folks had heard of Leno back then – not enough, anyway.
Oh sure, Leno held the record at the time for most guest host appearances on Johnny Carson‘s Tonight Show, and he had a boatload of rave critical reviews. Plus he was slated to host Saturday Night Live in late February two months before our show.
Oh yeah, and he only cost $10 grand – $10 grand that was supposed to come out of Rick’s pocket which unfortunately instead came out of ours.
Let’s cut to the chase…
So how much did we lose? Ten grand, of course.
Because we had rent and production costs, staffing, advertising and media buys – oh and a a thousand bucks for a St. Louis comic buddy of Jays nobody ever heard of. n short, it was a sweet deal.
Now let me tell you about Jay Leno.
He put on a kick ass, two-hour standup show that had the 1,200 or so (out of 2,400 available seats) laughing wildly from start to finish. Including me – despite that I knew we were taking a bath.
Leno was called the “Bruce Springsteen of comedy” at the time.
And he lived up to his rep, because not many comics could – or would – go out and nail two-plus hours. Let alone two hours that absolutely killed with nary a single bad word. Not one F bomb. Not one S bomb. Nothing even close.
Leno was made for the Tonight Show; funny as hell and clean as a whistle.
He flew in a day early to help publicize the show and I have to hand it to him, Leno did everything we asked. Every goofy lame interview – like KY102 jock Jon Hart who came to Leno’s hotel room downtown with a tiny tape recorder, while trying to impress radio shrink Marshall Saper‘s smoking hot niece, Nanci Saper.
Leno even let me to drag him all the way to Belton to schmooze Bev Worth of Worth Harley-Davidson, who supplied a new Harley for Jay to ride onstage at the Music Hall.
During that long day of me babysitting and driving Jay around prior to the show I was the proverbial fly on the wall listening to him rap with his comic buddy from St. Louis.
Which was quite revealing.
Because Leno spent about 90 percent of the time dissing other comics, especially SNL “Weekend Update” host Dennis Miller. Leno couldn’t say enough bad things about Miller, who at the time had a leg up on Leno in show biz.
The Jay Leno I observed was a fierce competitor. Someone who viewed other up and coming comics as the enemy. Enemies he took great delight in trashing.
So it did not surprise me years later after Leno finally got the Carson gig in 1992 that a scandal erupted with Leno’s hard charging manager Helen Kushnick getting dinged for “negotiating tactics that could be construed as either shrewd or unethical” with “abrasive and threatening” manners that angered “Leno’s bosses, colleagues, potential guests.”
All of which was depicted in the book and 1996 HBO movie The Late Shift.
Nor was I startled to read this recent headline in Entertainment Weekly:
” ‘Big Jaw’ vs. The World: A History of Jay Leno Hate”
“So as Leno prepares for his final few Tonight Shows, he finds himself in a unique position. More widely watched than any of his competitors, yet widely reviled by the majority of his peers.”
One more time.
“Widely reviled by the majority of his peers.”
Look, Jay Leno didn’t get where he got by being cute and cuddley. He worked his butt of and clawed his way to the top.
Leno lives to be on stage, make tons of money and spend it on wildly expensive and exotic automobiles. It’s more than just a little superficial, but hey, it’s his dough and he can spend it however he wants. But if money can’t buy love, it doesn’t appear that it can buy friendship either.
Maybe that’s why when Carson hosted his final Tonight Show, successor Leno neither appeared on nor garnered a mention on the show.
As for Dennis Miller, interviewed about Leno in 1992 he said: ”Jay and I were very good friends at one point. I don’t think I’d talk to him again, nor would he want to talk to me.”
Or how about the author of The Late Show describing Leno as “a two-faced machine willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
Say this about the Jay Leno I hung with and have followed, he pretty much disproves the old saying that, “Nice guys finish last.”