As Jews, anytime a prominent non-Jewish figure ‘retires’ we ask ourselves: ‘Was he good for the Jews’? Amid all the media coverage last week of American comedian Jay Leno’s farewell as host of The Tonight Show after 22 years, I wondered that as well. What made Jay Leno so unique? How did he last so long? How did he remain #1 in the ratings for his 11:30pm timeslot with such fierce competition from the likes of David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, and Arsenio Hall?
I’m too young to remember his predecessor, the legendary Johnny Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show for 30 years before passing the baton to Leno, (who is now passing it on to Jimmy Fallon), so I suppose I grew up on Jay Leno.
The secret to Leno’s longevity is that Jay is a hard worker, a good stand-up comedian, and simply a ‘good guy’ – in other words, ‘a mensch’.
Jay Leno has been married to his wife Mavis since 1980. Leno does not drink or smoke, nor does he gamble. He spends most of his free time visiting car collections or working in his private garage (Leno owns approximately 190 vehicles, about 90 of which are motorcycles). Leno reported that he doesn’t spend a penny of his money earned from The Tonight Show. Instead, he lives off his money from his stand-up routines and gives a lot to charities. A few years ago he took a significant pay cut to ensure that many workers on his Tonight Show staff wouldn’t get downsized.
The only blemish on Leno (besides his enormous chin and high, squeaky voice, which he himself makes fun of), was when NBC replaced him with Conan O’Brien as host of The Tonight Show in 2009, moving him to a new earlier show at 10pm. After seven months, NBC brought Leno back to his original timeslot, causing O’Brien to quit as a result. In spite of the turmoil, Leno then managed to host The Tonight Show for another four strong years.
Leno’s rival David Letterman once quipped: “Happy Rosh Hashanah! Don’t worry. All of tonight’s jokes have been written by my one gentile writer.” And one of Jay Leno’s joke writers was an Orthodox Jew, Marvin Silbermintz. In a 2010 interview Silbermintz was asked what it was like working with Leno. “He’s very respectful of religion. Very early on when I was writing for him I said, “Sorry, I have to leave now for Shabbos and I won’t be able to work until Saturday night.” He said, “Don’t apologize, it’s your religion.”
Even Leno’s opening monologue jokes had a strong pro-Israel bent. “President Obama suggested that Israel should go back to the pre-1967 borders. Native Americans said, “Why stop there? Let’s go back to the pre-1492 borders.” Even the jokes aimed at American politicians had a Middle-Eastern flavor: “In the Palestinian elections, Hamas won by a landslide, huge, huge margin. How does this make Democrats feel? They can’t win anything and terrorists are winning in a landslide!”
Jay Leno has many Jewish friends in Hollywood. Jewish comedian and film star Billy Crystal was Leno’s final guest last week, coming full circle as he was his first guest 22 years earlier. Leno has had young Israeli mind-reader/mentalist Lior Suchard on his show about a half a dozen times recently. One gets the feeling that Leno is not only amazed by Suchard, but genuinely likes the Israeli performer which is why he kept bringing him back.
Twenty years ago, when I was in college, I went to visit my friend David in Los Angeles. We decided to go see a taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. We set off early in the morning, arrived at NBC Studios in Bubank, got our pair of free tickets and were told what time to come back later for the show. That afternoon we got delayed by LA traffic and when we finally got back to NBC they had already let most of the ticketholders into the studio. I was sure our tardiness would cost us. The ushers led us up the stairs and to the studio doors, but wouldn’t let us in. We could hear Jay Leno come out to ‘warm-up’ the audience, telling jokes, telling everyone how great the show would be and then introducing The Tonight Show band led by Branford Marsalis. I turned to David and whined that we had come all this way for nothing, depressed that we would have to ‘listen’ to the show from outside the door, or maybe watch it from some monitor in the lobby. But as the band was playing the opening theme music, an usher opened the theater door and motioned to us to quickly come inside, unhooked a roped-off section of unoccupied ‘Reserved VIP seats’, and seated us front and center just as Jay Leno was announced and came out to thunderous applause for his opening monologue. From waiting in line at The Tonight Show, hosted by the nicest stand-up comedian around, I learned that timing is everything; you just have to be patient – and be a nice guy too. Thanks, Jay.