Leno returns: Emerson alum answers queries

by Beacon Staff • September 9, 2009

While on the road promoting his new show, The Jay Leno Show, late night talk show host and Emerson alumnus Jay Leno made his first stop at his home town and alma mater. Leno, who graduated in '73 with a Bachelor of Science in speech therapy, met with students from WERS-FM, JSONS.org, and The Berkeley Beacon for an interview about his new show, his time at Emerson, and to give advice to young comedians looking to follow in his footsteps.

Q: As an Emerson graduate do you feel like there is a secret to your success and to what got you this far?

A: I think the secret is to just be concerned about the work and don't worry about the money. So many people go 'Oh how much do you make,' or 'What do they pay you,' and you know, just get a job. Show business is one of those professions that if you are any good at it, the money will come.

Go to every audition, and don't be insulted. You're in a business where you cannot be insulted.I remember I went into an agent's office and in the trash can I see a torn picture. He says 'yea we got your stuff on file.' And I said, 'wow, that looks like my hair,' as I was trying to get to the other side of the trash can, I see this side of my face, and I realize my picture has been torn in half and thrown in the trash. Now I could make a big scene and I could get mad at that, or I could go 'this is a great story I could use later on if I ever make it.'

Every bad thing that happens to you in show business you can use to your advantage. It's the exact opposite of real life. So I would try not to get discouraged.

If you're not smarter than anybody else, or better looking than anybody else, more talented than anybody else, the only thing you have going for you is hard work. And that's what worked for me, I never thought I was better or funnier than anybody else but I was willing to do the time, I was willing to be humiliated, go through horrible auditions, and do all of that kind of stuff.

Q: Stand-up comics more or less have a field day with George W. Bush. How does it differ when you're dealing with a President with a high approval rating like Barack Obama?

A: Well I think Obama is trickier, but I think there are jokes there. And if you don't go for the obvious ones, you know race jokes don't really get you anywhere. Bush and Clinton, that was the golden age of comedy. But there's plenty there with Obama as well, you just have to find it. Sure, they gave us Obama, but they also gave us Joe Biden to balance it out.

Q: Now that you interviewed him and got to meet with him personally and talk to him, do you feel that you kind of honed in a little bit and have more of a means to take him on as a topic?

A: The real trick to doing comedy is not knowing more than everybody else, it's knowing exactly what everybody else knows. If I pick up The Boston Globe and USA Today and The New York Times and they all have the same headline, that's my joke tonight. If I know something about President Obama that you don't know and I do a joke about it, well now I'm Mr. Cool with my inside little insight that I have, so it really doesn't work that way.

Q: In less than four years you went from graduating from Emerson to appearing on The Tonight Show. When you graduated did you have a goal in mind?

A: No, I had no goal, I liked being a comedian and I was always extremely happy at any level I was working at. You know if you're in New York, and you're doing some crappy off-Broadway play . enjoy it and have fun with it. I was working here in the Combat Zone and the downside was the audiences were terrible and rude, but the upside was that there were naked girls at my job. I was 19 or 20 and I would go to work and none of my other friends had naked girls at their job, so you try and find the positive side of it.

Q: How do you feel broadcast media has changed since you got started with The Tonight Show?

A: It's become more and more corporate and it's harder to do new things. You see that in radio now. Every city you go to has a 'Jack FM' that sounds like it's from your local town but it's not, it's done out of corporate America. There's very little creative stuff being done in radio and WBCN radio just went out of business today. When I was your age in college WBCN was just coming up, and it was a big story because they refused to take corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola or Ford Motor Company because that was like, "The Man." And as corny as it seems now, at least there was an energy there. With the Pentagon Papers reporters [who] broke the law to get stories, and now it's like, 'okay the government says we can't go there so I guess we better not cover that.'

Q: Are you surprised by some of the answers you get when you go out and do "Jaywalking?"

A: It is amazing to me. It seems to be between the ages of 21 and 35, there's some hormonal thing there, because up to the eighth grade they get all the questions right and people over 40 or 50 get all the questions right, there's just something in that age group, some hormonal imbalance thing that just throws the whole thing off.

Q: For you to do your job you have to be 'in the know' as far as current events and news. Do you feel at all that part of your job is to bring news to people?

A: My job is to tell jokes. If in some way you can inform and enlighten after the joke, then it's okay. If you inform and enlighten before the joke, then you go from comedian, to humorist, to social satirist, to out of show business. I don't do that kind of thing and that's how I make my statement . people notice the things that you don't do as much as they notice the things that you do do. And I think that adds to why they would like or dislike you.

Q: Were you part of any organizations on campus when you were here?

A: No, I wasn't. You know what it was? It was a different time when I was here. When I was here, and this is my fault, when I auditioned for the theater department, I said I wanted to be a stand-up comedian and that really wasn't considered a viable thing at the time. And you know, I was insulted in that sort of teenage angst way, because I was working the Playboy Club across the street making 1,000 a weekend, but I couldn't get into the theatre department. Since that time Emerson has a wonderful comedy department, since then it has really opened up a lot, but back then . it really just wasn't something that the school had, so at the point I was just sort of . so I'll just go to school and get the degree and give it to my parents and then I'll just move on, and that's pretty much what I did. I can't say I paid a lot of attention and joined a lot of things. I was working at the foreign car dealership and I was driving to New York every night to work the Improv and the clubs so I didn't spend a lot of time here. I didn't get the chance to use the school to its full advantage. Since that time comedy has earned its rightful place at the school and I think it's great.