DETROIT - Jay Leno understands the value of work.
The host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” spends most of his time working, whether it’s on the air, in Las Vegas, at a theater halfway across the country or inside the comedy club where he goes on Sundays to try out material.
“He always feels like you’ve got to work hard today, because the job may be gone tomorrow,” says his longtime friend, Jeff Bouchard, who’s president of Gail & Rice, an events production company in Southfield, Mich. “He always works as though it’s his last gig.”
That outlook hits home with anyone in Michigan who’s clinging to a paycheck in the current economic nightmare.
It also helps explain why Leno gave free concerts for unemployed metro Detroiters on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Certainly Leno’s reputation as a car guy is a piece of the puzzle. But his empathy for the plight of the domestic auto industry runs deeper than his museum-sized collection of vehicles.
The 58-year-old entertainer’s career has been shaped by a blue-collar ethic. “I’m a little dyslexic. I’m a terrible speller. I was a terrible student,” says Leno, talking by phone earlier this week. “I always thought if I was ever going to try to accomplish anything, I would just have to work a little bit harder than everybody else.”
He’s the ultimate populist comic - a title that doesn’t always endear him to hipsters, but one that’s made him the ratings winner with regular TV viewers, who consider him one of their own.
Leno acquired his working-class habits naturally. He grew up in Massachusetts, where his father sold insurance and his mother was a frugal homemaker who, as Leno writes in his memoir, “Leading with My Chin,” once saved half of a leftover airline sandwich on a visit to her son in California.
His efforts to succeed in comedy were tireless. From his early days telling jokes in strip joints in Boston to his later success at top comedy clubs in New York and Los Angeles, Leno was doggedly persistent in his desire to take on more gigs.
“He just worked and worked and worked at it,” says Richard Zoglin of Time magazine, author of “Comedy at the Edge” (Bloomsbury USA, $15), a look at how stand-up in the 1970s changed American culture. “The joke was, basically, anywhere that asked him, he would appear. He just wanted always to be working, and I think that stood him well. It not only helped him develop his craft, but it put him in touch with audiences. He was always in front of audiences. He knew what worked, what didn’t. He developed his rapport.”
When Mark Ridley, owner of Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak, Mich., booked Leno back in 1983, it was clear that Leno’s appetite for work was as voracious as his quest for new material.
“He had such a wealth of observations and stories that he could just keep doing new stuff all the time. And he did it all from memory,” says Ridley. “When I would go to the apartment to pick up the comedians ... I’d see Garry Shandling, Dennis Miller, they all had notes. Everybody had notes. I asked Leno one time, ‘Do you ever write anything down?’ and he said, ‘No, I don’t have to.’ ... It was very impressive.”
Leno emerged as a stand-up star and became a frequent guest in the 1980s on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Around this time, his hip quotient with the humor intelligentsia was solid. But ever since he took over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson, the perception has been that he’s become less edgy as the voice of mainstream America.
In some ways, it’s an unfair rap. His observational humor has always been aimed at people from all walks of life. As People magazine noted in the late 1980s, Leno was never a cult comic, but rather a performer with “middle of the road appeal ... young fans greet Leno with unceremonious shouts of ‘Yo! Hey! How you doing?’ like he’s a fellow member of the plumbers union.”
Among comedy buffs, subversiveness - not accessibility - earns the most admiration. The aloof Letterman, a more prickly and less accessible character, is viewed by critics as having a greater role as a cultural influence.
Still, Leno tends to have the last laugh. He surprised many when he was chosen as Carson’s successor. And though he’s leaving “The Tonight Show” at the end of May - a deal NBC concocted years ago in an effort to lock Conan O’Brien into the spot - he’s landed on top again with a weeknight prime-time show on the network that debuts in the fall.
Those who know Leno say his everyman image - from his simple tastes in food to the handshakes he gives studio audience members - is authentic. Bouchard, who produced the free Detroit shows, remembers an instance where, as they ran through an airport to catch a flight, Leno paused to greet a fan who’d yelled his name.
“He said ... ‘That’s going to be their only encounter with someone they see on television today. If I treat them poorly, they’re going to tell 10 people and then 10 people are going to tell another 10 and by the end of the month, Jay Leno is a jerk to thousands of people. I just don’t want that.’”
Leno’s effort to provide free comic relief may be similar to that incident in the airport. It’s the least he can do for the folks who make his job possible.
“I’m not saying Letterman should do it, but who else would come to Detroit and do two free shows?” says Ridley. “Even though it’s a job, he’s thanking the people. They’re the people who kept him up there all these years.”