LEADING WITH MY CHIN
By Jay Leno
278 pages, $22
If the late-night wars were set in the animal kingdom, David Letterman would probably be a Siamese cat and Jay Leno a Saint Bernard. Though Letterman has the reputation as the brooding, tortured, enigmatic type, we could invite Jay to our family barbecue without a second thought. He's a regular guy who likes cars and has been married to the same woman forever. So what is "Leading With My Chin" going to tell us about Jay Leno that we don't already know?
Before reviewing what's in the book, here's a look at what isn't.
There is no mention of longtime manager Helen Kushnick, who undoubtedly catapulted his career but alienated nearly everyone she dealt with. (After her death a few weeks ago, Leno told the press that he never reconciled with Kushnick. She had never called him or written when his parents passed away a few years ago, and he never forgave her for that.)
And one would think he might discuss the Johnny Carson flap. After all, Leno inherited the plum job in television -- host of "The Tonight Show" -- and, incredibly, failed to mention Carson on his first night as host. Blasted by critics and many viewers for such blasphemy, Leno finally has the chance to explain himself. But he passes, choosing instead to go full tilt bozo mea culpa. Leno also describes his admiration for Carson and tells how Johnny's laugh was the ultimate joyful noise to a comedian.
And don't bother to look for new salvos being fired in the late-night wars in these pages. Instead, Leno offers the olive branch to David Letterman, going so far as to include a transcript of an exchange between them on the old "Late Night" show in which they recalled jokes the two had once tried to sell to Jimmie "J.J." Walker.
No, this book is not an expose of the controversies in which Leno has found himself embroiled. It's actually a collection of stories about his childhood and early career. In short, it's something he could have written before he got his current gig -- and maybe he did, because the book really focuses on the days before he hit it big.
Those oft-told comic-on-the-road tales -- frat houses, strippers and dives (oh my!) -- are standard fare. Instead, he should have stuck with the "growing up Leno" anecdotes that ring truer.
It's not surprising that Leno's parents come to life in these pages; his moving tribute to his father on "The Tonight Show" on the night he died was one of the most spontaneous moments during his tenure as host. He shares similar memories that capture his parents' personalities as well as their love for him, such as this one, which closes the book:
It seems that when Leno was 16 he accidentally shattered the window in his prized '34 Ford pickup truck and couldn't afford to replace it. He was sitting in class one day when a big storm approached and he realized that his Naugahyde seats were about to be destroyed by rain.
Then suddenly through the window, I saw my mom and dad tear into the parking lot. They screeched up next to my truck and dragged a huge piece of plastic out of their car. Then they covered the truck in the pouring rain. My dad had known the rain would ruin the upholstery. So he left the office in the middle of the day and picked up my mom and brought this hunk of plastic to save the seats.
I watched them do this. And I just began crying right there in class.
Years before, these same thoughtful parents had desperately tried to find some activity to interest young Jay -- football, basketball, scouting -- but nothing caught his fancy. That is, until one day when his teacher began telling the class about Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. She explains that the king threatened to boil Robin Hood's men in oil if they got caught.
The astute Jay raises his hand and says, "They can't boil Tuck." "Why not?" asks his teacher/straight man. "Because he's a friar." Ta-dum-bum. The rest, as they say, is history.
The inherent problem with most comedians' memoirs is how they embellish a story over time to make it funnier, so that soon it's impossible to discover what actually happened. They've told the enhanced story so many times that, like layers of old wallpaper, it's impossible to remember what's underneath.
A perfect illustration is a story with a bit of local flavor Leno includes in "Leading With My Chin" to demonstrate how unknown he once was. Early on in his career he got a call to appear on "AM Buffalo" and drove eight hours from New York to do the show. Happy for the exposure, he settled in the "green room" with the other guests, an African pygmy dance troupe. A few minutes later, the segment producer walked into the room with a clipboard, looking around the room and saying: "Mr. Leno? Is there a Mr. Leno here?" (He's the one without the spear.)
Now, it's a fact that Leno was then a regular visitor to "AM Buffalo," often stopping by when appearing at the Tralfamadore. And chances are that in those days he probably was an anonymous presence in the green room. So what if the "AM Buffalo" folks don't quite recall an African pygmy dance troupe ever actually appearing on "AM Buffalo"? It's still a funny bit.
"Leading With My Chin" is characteristic Leno, and almost as easy to like. And why shouldn't it be? As was vividly portrayed in Bill Carter's book and subsequently the HBO movie "The Late Shift," Leno's legendary affability and his willingness to schmooze the NBC affiliates were probably much greater factors in his being chosen to host "The Tonight Show" than any comedy routine he ever performed.
Niceness has its rewards. Just ask David Letterman.