“It was a nightmare!,” Jay Leno said.
He was only half laughing.
Tap any comic and you can find a story like this: the stand-up gig from hell. For Leno, it was early in his career, and the catalyst for his doom was singer Tom Jones, who at the time was one of the hottest hunks of burnin’ love in pop music.
“It was a nightmare,” Leno repeated. “I was in Las Vegas, opening for Tom Jones, and the Tom Jones Fan Club – all these women – would buy up the first 10 or 12 rows for all 14 shows, the whole two weeks. And there was nothing you could do to please them.
“The way they saw it, any time that you were on stage, it was time that Tom Jones couldn’t be on stage.”
It was, he recalled one last time, “a nightmare.”
The point of the story for Leno is that, for him, “the hard part is over!”
Leno has not been anyone else’s opening act for decades. Should he run up against a stone-wall of an audience like the Tom Jones Fan Club, there is no one to blame but himself.
Fortunately for the comedian, over the past 40 years, including his 22-year tenure as host of “The Tonight Show,” he has nailed down this joke-telling business pretty well.
Fans will get to gauge it for themselves at 8 p.m. Saturday when Leno appears in the Seneca Niagara Casino Events Center. Tickets have been sold out for a while.
Leno talked about his upcoming visit recently by phone from his home in Los Angeles. He had just been out on one of his motorcycles, something he agreed would have been tough to do in Buffalo in mid-March.
Wintry or not, though, he said he has a real affection for the Northeast, where he grew up.
“I like Buffalo, it’s a fun city,” Leno said. “I like old industrial towns – I like Buffalo, I like Detroit, I like Cleveland. I like places where they used to make stuff.”
Leno, 63, recalled performing at the original Tralf, back when it was called the Tralfamadore Cafe and was in the basement of a building on the corner of Main and Fillmore, and was a pretty funky place. He enjoyed it.
“Cold climates are just better for comedy,” he said.
Hardy people appreciate a good joke, he theorized, possibly because they grew up, as he did, reading books like “Ethan Frome” and “Silas Marner.”
“Grim, depressing stuff,” he said. “You’re born, you suffer and you die. No wonder you need a laugh.”
Compare that to an outdoor show he once did near the beach in Hawaii:
“People were going by on sail boards and things in the background, and it was horrible. I like the shows to have a communal feeling. People don’t gather anymore. I grew up in a small town in New England [Andover, Mass.], and every few months they would have a town meeting at the Grange. Nothing would get done, but everyone would talk. It was good.”
There was one super-warm venue that did work out for him, maybe because the vibe in the isolated locations also was more “town meeting” than “tropical vacation.”
“I did USO shows in Kuwait, where they fly you in on a helicopter to these bases, and it is so hot, but the guys don’t care, they are just sitting in the sand watching you,” Leno said. “And there is nothing out there. These guys are so starved for jokes that they fall down laughing. And I’m up there wondering, ‘Hey, it’s not that funny!’
“But really, I’m like, ‘Give me more shows with Kuwait tank guys!’ You never know how these things will work out.”
These days, life is working out pretty well for the former “Tonight Show” host. The Hollywood Reporter asked some of his comedy colleagues what Leno should do after he handed off “Tonight” to Jimmy Fallon in February, and got some thoughtful responses.
From Andy Samberg: “Three words. Jay. Leno. Impersonator. He would clean up.”
Chelsea Peretti’s tip: “Start a line of denim clothes. He’s really known for his denim-on-denim repertoire. Or hair care; he’s got a nice shock of hair.”
And, from “The Soup” host Joel McHale: “He’s the biggest American car collector, and he’s a master mechanic. Maybe he’ll start building helicopters by hand.”
Or maybe not.
Leno went through the fire with critics and the media over the intrigue, real and imagined, related to “The Tonight Show” job when he first took over and David Letterman didn’t, and then when Conan O’Brien took over, and NBC had buyer’s remorse and brought Leno back. But Leno never stopped loving comedy, and never stopped doing stand-up.
Now, as he puts it, he can even go out and do it on school nights.
“I can do more dates during the week, which is great,” he said. “Recently I went to China for the day, which was weird. I landed at 10, did the thing [a talk with students about car design] at noon and then came back.” He paused. “That may be too much, I don’t know.”
He’s also fitting in some shows in Israel soon. Will he have to adjust his jokes for the Israeli audience?
“I think it’s pretty universal, with the themes of family and stuff, you don’t have to change it a lot,” Leno said.
“Or, maybe you do. I’ll find out. Maybe I’ll be saying ‘Wow, I lied to that reporter!’ ”
A few weeks ago, Leno was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, and he used his acceptance speech to point out the importance of knowing when to step down, among other things.
He told the audience that even though he doesn’t want to look or act 63, there are certain things that cannot be denied. Twenty-five years ago, he said, he wiped out on his motorcycle at nearly 100 mph and landed in the hospital. A day later, he went home, stiff and sore. A day after that, he was a little less stiff, a little less sore, and the day after that he was back in front of a microphone, “as if nothing had happened. ...
“Last Thursday, I’m sitting on my couch, I yawn ... and turn my head ... at the same time. Argh! What an idiot I was thinking I could pull off a maneuver like that!”
Hopefully, no yawning will be involved when he’s doing his show, which he said helps keep him in shape.
“I may be older, but I’m not elderly yet. I’m still able to stand up, it’s not like I’m George Burns. I probably walk four or five miles a night on stage.”
His goal is to have his audience enjoy themselves as much as he does, and he loves the live interaction.
“I’m having a lot of fun now. On the road, you can tell the same jokes and try them in different ways, and you have more time, so you can tell them as a story.”
It isn’t rocket science.
“Except for the microphone,” he said, “it’s pretty basic communication.”
Try these on for laughs
During the interview, Jay tried out some jokes he was working on:
“I was reading that at the London Zoo, when the monkeys see people with cellphones, they try to grab the phones, so the zoo says it’s going to try to retrain the monkeys.
“I say ‘No! Don’t retrain them! Put them in movie theaters and restaurants ...’ ”
And this, which he says could be “too guy-centered:”
“Scientists say looking at pornography can disrupt families and hurt relationships. Or, as men call it, ‘A small price to pay.’ ”
And then, there is a Buffalo joke that he has told many times before, but which has sadly run its course:
“Ah, Dickie’s Donuts – I always tell my wife Mavis it is ‘not associated with Richard’s Doughnuts Inc.,’ and she always laughs. It doesn’t make any sense, but my wife likes it.”
With Dickie’s gone, the joke probably is, too. “Not associated with Timothy’s Doughnuts, LLC,” just doesn’t have the same ring.