Saturday, May 30, 2009

Leading with my chin - Jay Leno

Yesterday night NBC aired the final episode of Jay Leno hosting The Tonight Show. I have long thought of Leno as one of the classier funny guys around. As a tip of the hat, I thought I would revisit his 1996 autobiography of sorts, Leading With My Chin.

I don't often read autobiographies or memoirs. Biographies, written from a distance and with the perspective of time, are a little bit more up my alley, though I am not crazy about those either. So it surprises me that I ever bought Leading With My Chin. Every so often when I notice the book on my shelf I have to shake my head with a 'what was I thinking'. Re-reading the book over the last couple of days though I am happy that I did.

Leading With My Chin is one funny book! It is not traditional autobiography in any sense. Think of it more as a collection of extremely funny anecdotes from Jay Leno's life. It gives you a great idea of his Scottish mom - Italian dad family, and how the two very different personalities in his life shaped the kind of person he is. But mostly, it reads like a manuscript of a stand-up act.

As a sample, let me quote one of the hilarious childhood situations Leno writes about. This one is a school prank called Faked Suicide. "This one required an accomplice. Back in junior high, it was Lewis Trumbore. Our school was an enormous old building with huge windows that had to be opened with a pole, so that they would cantilever outward. This would create a gaping space that looked dangerous to begin with. So Lewis's job was to stand by this big window in our third-floor classroom and dangle the heels of my shows below the ledge. Then he'd holler for the teacher and say in a panicked voice, 'Come here quick! Jay Leno's hanging out the window! I can't hold on much longer!' The teacher would race over, just as Lewis dropped the shoes outside and screamed ... The teacher would get to the window just in time to look down, clutch her heart, and shriek ' Oh my God!' Of course, I had already been sprawled down on the ground for five minutes, playing dead." Cool!

One thing I learnt here is that stand-up is no joke. To get started requires some serious tenacity. "To audition at places like Catch a Rising Star and The Improv, we would start lining up outside the clubs at two in the afternoon with hopes of getting onstage sometime after eleven that night. You'd spend your whole day sitting on the curb, waiting and waiting." For an audition! That might result in a part time job. Where you would be expected to work for free! That's just how the business works. Boy, am I glad banking doesn't work that way!

The one thing Leading With My Chin lacks is a lot of NBC stories. The book was pulished four years after Leno starting hosting The Tonight Show. But there are zero stories about that period in here. In later years of course, he developed a deep reservoir of NBC jokes, which are among my favorite Leno. But there's none of that here.

For those looking for a raw, emotional, deep look at who Leno is, and what made him what he is, this is certainly not the right book. If you like the man, enjoy his brand of easy, clean, mainstream humor, and are looking for a light read to while away a few hours, you might enjoy Leading With My Chin. I know I did.

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