5/20/08 - hard work

In today's excerpt - Jay Leno tries to build a career in comedy:

"Born in 1951, ... [Jay] Leno grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, outside Boston, the son of an insurance man who ran motivational classes in which he'd inspire his salesmen with the Sinatra song, 'High Hopes.' Leno struggled through high school and enrolled at the Bentley School of Accounting and Finance—then realized he had no aptitude for either. ... Leno decided to strike out on his own. 'It was a wonderful time to be a comic', says Leno 'because everybody else wanted to be a folksinger: 'Stop your war machine, Mr. President!' As comics, the audience couldn't wait to see us.' ...

"Leno pursued his stand-up career with the same dogged, can-do optimism of his dad's motivational lessons. In Boston, he picked up work at Kiwanas clubs, retirement homes, hospitals, even prisons. He would walk into bars, plunk down a fifty-dollar bill, and tell the owner he wanted to do a set of stand-up; if he bombed, the proprietor could keep the money. (Most gave him back the cash, no matter how he did.) ... [New York Improv owner Budd] Friedman remembers his first encounter with the eager youngster: 'He said, 'Mr. Friedman my name is Jay Leno. This is the third night in a row I've driven down from Boston. I don't get on. When can I get on?' I said, 'You drive down from Boston and back in the same night?' 'Yeah.' 'You're on next.' ' ...

"There was something appealing, almost inspiring, about Leno's dogged Horatio Alger-style enthusiasm. He went on TV auditions wearing his only suit ... when he tried out for Jack Paar's variety show, they laughed at him. 'They said, 'Is that your suit?' It was so heartbreaking, I remember crying all the way home because I failed the audition.' His strategy was simply to work harder and to stick to it longer than anyone else. 'You'd spend your whole day sitting on the curb, waiting and waiting,' he wrote of lining up for auditions in his memoir, Leading with My Chin. 'Inevitably somebody in front of you would say, 'This sucks!' and walk away. I always enjoyed that. All of a sudden, I had moved up! Without my doing a thing, my standing in show business had just improved!' "


Richard Zoglin


Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America


Bloomsbury USA


Copyright 2008 by Richard Zoglin


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