Warehoused inside the head of Jay Leno is an encyclopedia of tales, gags, anecdotes, stories, memories and riffs from the world of stand-up, many of those incidentally from the encyclopedic stand-up world of Jay Leno.
Here's one that is not, however. In the spring of 1974, Redd Foxx came to the Westbury Music Fair, and packed the house with fans of his NBC hit, "Sanford and Son," many expecting to see doddering, dithering Fred Sanford. Westbury had warned fans for weeks that they would not be seeing Fred Sanford, but rather Redd Foxx, and when Foxx told his first joke, they quickly learned the difference.
"People stormed out furious," Leno recalls. "They were terribly offended, even though there were signs up everywhere saying this show is rated triple-X."
Leno has told this story many times, usually to make a point that most people don't read the fine print before purchasing tickets. Despite being warned that Foxx worked blue, fans were still furious at him when he did.
Leno, however, tells the story in a recent conversation to make a slightly different point: That amid hot culture wars and political divisons, every working stand-up faces a potential Foxx-style implosion these days. The distance between a joke and offense has shortened. Fury is just a tweet away.
It's tough out there, folks, and Leno — who's returning to the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Saturday, Oct. 26 — knows well the truth of that. He has the scars to prove it and picked up another one recently for making the innocuous observation on a tabloid TV show that Eddie Murphy might have a difficult time returning to stand-up following a 20-year absence. Murphy fans were furious, and Leno — as he occasionally does — beat a slight retreat. "All I said was it's really hard," he says. "I give Eddie a lot of credit [because] stand up is hard to come back to after almost twenty years [but] I think he's great …"
Meanwhile, as Leno's fans also know, he hasn't taken a break from stand-up in nearly 45 years, still maintaining a ferocious schedule. He punches out around 100-plus shows a year while also punching out seasons of CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage," a weekly YouTube car enthusiast show, guest appearances on "Last Man Standing" and guest-judging ones on "America's Got Talent." He also launched something called Jay Leno’s Garage Advanced Vehicle Care (think detailing products) in 2016.
As always, stand-up remains his first love. These days, when he speaks about the 22-year run at "The Tonight Show" and that short-lived 10 p.m. "Jay Leno Show" which launched and expired ten years ago this fall), it's as if he's speaking about a side gig to the main one. He laughs when reminded that "The Jay Leno Show" came and went ten years ago: "Not long enough."
But "Tonight" did offer him a unique vantage of the culture wars, and the protean nature of what's funny, or offensive. It continues to offer lessons in how to survive because "Tonight" taught him how to work both sides of the room.
"I don't think comedy has changed that much," he says. "I just think we're in a period where people got a lot ruder. To me, 'political correctness' used to be 'politeness.' I know that when I'm on stage, and dealing with some heckler, I won't go for the throat. If it's a fat guy, I'll make fun of his tie. It doesn't take a heckler more than thirty seconds to realize that 'oh, this guy isn't going to go after me for the most obvious thing [about him]' and he'll back off.
"One thing I loved about President Obama is that he never called someone racist, but said 'we have a difference of opinion.' But when [President] Trump insults someone, it's something he can never take back. We've reached this point where we say things we can't apologize for later because it's right in your face and it makes any kind of reconciliation impossible. I try to leave the door open, even with people who are going after me, so there's a chance we could be friends."
For Leno, comedy has always been about the joke. If it's funny, it's funny. Ideally it should transcend or at the very least sidestep all that which divides or infuriates people. He's also pragmatic and seasoned enough to know that's impossible, at least all of the time.
Political humor is an obvious minefield, although Leno insists that Trump jokes "are not perilous if you go after both sides equally." Leno also knows his audiences tend to be conservative and that "if I open with a Trump joke, you get pushback [but] with a Democrat or Hillary [joke] there might be a little laughter, and then you jump in with Trump, then come back with Elizabeth Warren."
"It seems to work reasonably well if people think you're doing both" major political parties. Nonetheless, only ten percent of a typical Leno show is devoted to politics. Leno admits that he wants people to leave his shows generally happy as opposed to generally mad because there are enough places for them to get that kind of charge.
Therefore, he retrofits his shows to achieve that end. He says he makes virtually no allowances for regional humor because "everyone has access to a computer and the same information all the time"" but admits that "I find when I get to the east coast, I become more Italian." (His father Angelo, who died in 1994, was of Italian descent.) He has declined offers to do stand-up specials for streaming services because audiences at his live shows would then know much of his material.
Mostly, Leno does as Leno has always done. He keeps it nice, and keeps that door open. I remind him of another anecdote he told recently on D.J. Hughley's radio show.
"Oh yeah, the road rage one," he recalls. "There was this guy behind me and he's honking at me, and then I pull up to him at the next light and he gives me the finger. He had this put-upon look, and was this fat middle aged guy, and I just started hammering him. Then, he started crying! So I pulled over and said 'all right man, you have kids?' and got him tickets to a Taylor Swift concert.
"He was an OK guy who was just having one of those days [and] I think that's where most people are. Society works because most people want to do the right thing. There wouldn't be enough police in the world if human nature didn't want us to do the right thing."
There's no punchline here, but just a veteran standup's key to either his own career longevity or for a less divisive world. Possibly both?
WHEN|WHERE Saturday, Oct. 26 at 8 p.m., NYCB Theatre at Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Road