“I was with the same girl for three years and I started to have erection difficulties. We had different ideas as to what the problem was. She bought me Viagra — I bought her a treadmill.” This was the first joke I ever told on The Tonight Show. My second joke dealt with hating my man breasts and wanting to fall on a knife (not to be confused with the reference to shooting myself because I hated the rest of my torso two jokes later). This was September 9, 2004, and it marked the beginning of my 10-year relationship with Jay Leno and The Tonight Show.
Being a harsh, dirty comic, the last person on earth I ever expected to help my career was Jay Leno. I had always thought of performing on The Tonight Show as an unachievable goal, because I bought into the myth that only squeaky clean, family-friendly material would be welcome there. In the years that followed, I can’t remember one instance where I felt like I couldn’t do the material I wanted to do.
I arrived at the studio the day of that first appearance around 3:00pm for a 4:00pm taping. One of the producers brought me onto the set to show me where I’d be entering and walked me out on the masking tape X I was expected to stand on and do my set. I was grateful to be physically walking through the process: I was so nervous that if he hadn’t showed me, I probably would have walked straight off the stage and plowed into the audience.
As I was dutifully standing on the X and confirming (“Here, right? This X right here?”), I glanced over and saw Jay at his desk going over a piece with his executive producer. My nervousness (mortal terror) must have shown, because he stopped the rehearsal and walked over to introduce himself to me. He asked how I was doing and I blurted out, “Fine, just fine!” nodding my head like John Candy in Stripes.
I’m sure he could sense the impending disaster on hand, and immediately launched into calm-this-nervous-idiot-down mode. “You’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said. “The crowds are here to laugh and they’re gonna love you. There’s no pressure. If it goes great, you come back. If it doesn’t go great, you’ll have a cool story. And then you can come back and try it again anyway.”
Obviously I knew that if I was awful I wouldn’t be asked back, but I also understood what he was doing and it meant a lot to me. Jay was notorious for loving comics and treating us well, and his taking that minute to help me is something I never forgot. Unfortunately, that type of altruism isn’t as common as you’d think. There are some hosts who are legendary for the immeasurable apathy they manage to show every comedian with whom they come in contact.
The better I got to know him, the more I began to use him as a sounding board whenever I was stuck at a crossroads in my career. I spent the majority of our dressing room chats picking his brain for solutions. He was such a great person for me to talk to because of his level-headedness and ability to think before reacting. When things go wrong, my first instinct is to strap on a bomb belt and run through the front door screaming. Jay’s advice was always smart and well thought-out, and he saved me on more than one occasion from making a total ass out of myself.
He stressed to me to never make it all about the money — that if you do the right thing, the money will eventually come. He also tried to drill into my head not to feed into the negativity in the business. He meant it. In all the talks we had, even when the country was preparing itself for civil war over the Conan O’Brien situation, he never once came from a place of bitterness or cynicism.
I have so many great memories of Jay and The Tonight Show, but that first moment together is still my favorite. He did so much not only for me, but for countless other comedians. I don’t know one comic who did the show and wasn’t blown away by how Jay treated them.
Congratulations, Jay, on receiving the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. You were one of the most respected headliners in the country and then went on to dominate late night television for almost 20 years. You deserve it. And thank you for taking such good care of me for so long. I will never be able to repay the debt.