The last time the Deseret News talked to Jay Leno it was his 38th birthday and he was spending it his favorite way - packing his suitcase, driving to yet another town, unpacking his suitcase and telling a bunch of jokes to a very large room full of people.
That was a couple of weeks before he packed his suitcase, flew to Salt Lake City, unpacked his suitcase and told a bunch of jokes in the middle of a large crowd of people at the Special Events Center.Now, nearly three years later - even though he is probably the most well-known and one of the best-paid comedians in America - he still spends most of his time on the road, sometimes doing as many as 300 shows a year.
Leno will perform in Salt Lake City at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 14, in Symphony Hall.
Leno doesn't have to do stand-up on the road. He could easily get away with "guest hosting" once a week for Johnny Carson, dropping in to do a David Letterman spot, filming the occasional HBO special and pitching Doritos. But, as Leno explains, performing live in medium-size cities all across America keeps your comedy relevant and your wits sharp. Besides, it keeps you from being lazy.
Cosmopolitan magazine calls him "America's Hardest-Working Comic." In 1987, People magazine called him "The Sexiest Man in America" (although they also added that they were just kidding). People in general call him a regular guy, and that's why his humor works. He makes them laugh, but he doesn't put anybody down in the process. He isn't angry. He didn't even have a bad childhood.
Leno's dad was a gregarious insurance salesman, the guy who would always be called on to be master of ceremonies at conventions. To his young son, the job looked like fun - not the insurance part, but making people laugh.
In grade school he made his classmates laugh so much his teachers wrote home notes complaining that he was "fooling around again." In college he discovered he could get paid, sort of, for telling jokes to strangers. He started in sleazy strip joints and carnival midways, moved up to nightclubs, then moved on to Los Angeles on a whim one night after watching some comedian on "The Tonight Show" and deciding he could do better.
His rise to fame and fortune took about 10 more years. The first time Carson caught his act, at the Improv in 1975, he reportedly wasn't very impressed. It took two more years before Leno was booked on the show, and several years more before America sat up from their late-night stupor and really took notice.
In the meantime, Leno was crisscrossing the country, opening for acts like Johnny Mathis. The first time he played Salt Lake City - with Mathis in 1979 - one local reviewer brushed off Leno's act with a sniff: "If he'd string together his five best jokes and two or three funniest voices, would be considered clever."
Today, Leno is one of America's favorite comedians, even though he doesn't have his own sitcom and doesn't even want one. He has reportedly turned down offers to do comedy albums. He has appeared in two forgettable movies and starred in one, "Collision Course," that may never be released because it's tied up in the bankruptcy litigation of the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group. But Leno doesn't seem to care.
"People are always asking me if I think I'll still be doing this in five years," he told the Deseret News a few years ago. Pause. "Like I'm a child pornographer or something."
There is still talk about him taking Carson's place five nights a week. In the meantime, he is content to pack his suitcase again and travel to Portland or Atlanta . . . or Salt Lake City, one more time.