So much to say about Jay. I’ve known him so many years. I think so much of him on so many levels. When I came to Los Angeles in 1977 Jay was the top level of the new comics. I think he had done a couple shots on Merv Griffin. He was great though. He took me under his wing. He was so damn good to me. I hung out with him every night and every day for years and years. He called my folks when I was just settling in at 18 years old and helped them not worry about me out here, and a couple years later when I was sick late one night with what we found out was an ulcer he took me to the hospital in the late hours and stayed with me until five o’clock that day.
A SPECIAL GUY
His parents raised Jay right, I’ve always said that. Is he driven? Yes, did he rub some of the comics the wrong way on the way up the talk show game in a super competitive arena? Maybe, but he was someone that paid his dues and wanted his seat at the table and was willing to fight for it and deserve it, and when others wanted him to lay down and play dead he didn’t always want to do that. Too bad. A lot of these guys don’t always know the real stories, or they forget them. I was there though. I remember a lot things other seem to forget.
When a group of the class a few years ahead of me at the Comedy Store were just taking on wind, Jimmy Walker was starring in Good Times, and he was the ‘guy’. He was the Joe Rogan of his day. The center of the pack. He hired David Letterman and Jay, and a lot of others, and even Byron Allen to write jokes for him, and before long Jimmy’s managers, a married couple, Jerry and Helen Kushnick, started a company with Jimmy called ‘Ebony Genius’. Jay was their second or so client and I think David Letterman was signed up pretty soon after.
A couple years later as Dave started to show his promise, Rollins, Joffee, Morra, and Brezner, who handled Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and others wanted to take Dave on and Dave very much wanted to go with them under the guidance of Buddy Morra, a top manager there. He went to the Kushners and JImmy Walker and asked to be let out of his contract which he had he worked under for quite some time by then. A contract that was more than a little onerous and something that only a very, very, green artists would agree to. The managers held firm and wouldn’t let Dave out unless he agreed to pay them a large part of all of his future earnings. Jay got into it with the Kushners who went on to become his managers until they each passed away years later and Jimmy and, finally got them all to release Dave from his contract. (Dave may have had to settle with them somehow monetarily. I don’t remember,) I do remember that Jay came down hard on them all in Dave’s defense. I was there at this house once and heard his side of the phone call in fact.
Years later I brought it up to Dave who claimed he had no memory of it, which I believe. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing he had a large hand in either way. He was arms length on a lot of that type of thing, but it was typical of Jay. He was always looking out for his friends. In fact the biggest falling out he and I had, and it was a big one, was the Comedy Store strike. I let him down. It was a mistake. I sided with Mitzi Shore after a long time on the sidelines when I felt it was just a bloodletting and a lot of comics, not Jay, and not Letterman or Tom Dreesen or Elayne Boosler, but acts that never got spots from her just wanted to destroy her and her business and I didn’t want any part of that.
The loss of my friendship with Jay for a long time was one of the hardest hits I ever took in comedy. Over the years we’ve become friends again and he had me back on his show when he was the host of The Tonight Show and I loved being on it with him talking about and hawking my movies. He always asked about my dad who had become friends with years earlier when he would play Detroit. My dad was also a car guy and he would lend Jay an old car he had restored to drive around for his shows in Detroit. You got to feel pretty comfortable lending a nice car to Jay Leno.
He was always so good with cars. I remember driving around LA in his old cars with him. Back when he only had three or so. Which by the way. Who had three or so cars? All of his cars were Mr. Mister Buick, Mr. Mercedes. Mr. Chevrolet, whatever.
TAKEN SOME HITS
He’s taken some hits lately but the way he’s gone through them are so ‘Leno.’ No complaining. No whining. Not even a lot of pain pills. Just shucking it off. Skin graffs? Broken bones? ‘Yeah, other people have it worse. I got some shit to do. I’m gonna get back to work.’ It would be a character in a sci-fi film if it wasn’t a real guy. But he’s just Jay. He’s Leno through and through. Just a well written character. Still doing his act, still tinkering with his car, married to Mavis, hasn’t changed one bit, still has the same phone number from four hundred years ago.
Any comic that knows Jay knows he’s set in his ways with his theories, traditions, and beliefs on stand-up. Most of the time he’s right. He always told me a few things I never listened to him about and he was dead right on. He would harp on me not to let go of my act. ‘Never give up your act, Binder. Keep doing your act no matter what.’ He was spot on. Also he was hard on me. ‘Work on the jokes. Work on your act. You get up there and fuck around, talk to the audience, do stupid shit with the curtain. Work on an act. Work on it.’ And I didn’t. That’s why I let it go. It didn’t grow. It didn’t get better. It was just okay. I wasn’t proud of it. It wasn’t getting great. He was right about so much. I’m doing it again, and I’m working my ass off on it, doing exactly what he used to harp on me about years ago, and now I understand exactly what he was saying. It all seems so clear now.
He was such a good friend. He still is. There still is so much to learn from a guy like a Jay Leno. He’s loyal. He’s real. He doesn’t turn on his friends. People in this business turn on you so quick. Guys like Jay are rare.
Like I say, his parents raised him right.
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