We took our seats in the front row, and ordered some dinner. I wasn't sure if ordering dinner was wise when you're in the front row at a comedy show, but it was Leno we came to see, so how bad could it be? The guy that went on before him was Jimmy Brogan, who had been Leno's head writer at The Tonight Show for many years. He was really good, and great with the crowd too.
When Jay came out, the place roared. He did about an hour set, then took out a pile of index cards. They were filled with jokes, and he read them, using the audience as an indicator to see whether or not he would use them in his Tonight Show monologue. After that, he did some crowd work, asking “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”. He came to me with the questions and I said, “Detroit, I'm in radio.” He then responded sarcastically, “Ooh, Radio guy!” with the air quotes that got a few laughs. Then he ended the show, and that was it. I couldn't believe he talked to me. Then I got brave, and asked to see the manager. A comic friend of mine knew him, so I used his name to have a short conversation. Then I did the unthinkable, and asked if we could meet Jay backstage. To our surprise the manager said, “Sure come on back.”
When we entered the comedian's “green room”, there he was, tie loosened, sitting in front of a huge spread of food. “Jay, some guys wanted to say hello,” the manager noted. Jay stood up at his seat and responded, “Oh hey there, sit down! You hungry? You guys want some pasta? Watermelon?” I couldn't believe he was offering us something to eat. So we sat there for 20 minutes talking. He asked about my radio job. “So what do you do at the station?” “I work on the morning show as a co-host/sidekick. I do voices, celebrity impressions.” I said. “Ah. Do you do me?” he smiled. I laughed and said, "Not very well, but want to hear my Letterman?” I gave him a little and he smiled wider. “Have you ever done stand-up? You should tell jokes with your impressions.” Jay asked. Stand-up? I was always scared about doing stand-up. The thought of getting heckled was scary. And there was something comic Dave Coulier told me years earlier about once you lose the room, it's so hard to get them back. I just had this stamp on it in my mind that said, “Nope, I'm never doing that.” I answered, “No.” Jay said, “Well why don't you get up and try it. Do like four minutes.” He turns to the owner of the Comedy and Magic Club, “Mike, don't you have some open mic time this week so he can do 4 minutes?” The owner replied, “Yeah, we can do that, sure.” Then Jay turns to me and says, “Okay, so you got your time. You got nothing to lose. Are you gonna do it, yes or no?” Holy crap. Jay Leno was challenging me to get up and do stand up for the first time ever. What am I going to say----No?! “Okay, yes, I'll do it!”. It was Sunday. I had no material. In three days, I would be performing a 4 minute set at the Comedy and Magic Club.
The next three days were stressful to say the least. I spent most of the time writing, trying to come up with ideas, and probably driving my friend Gary crazy with my neurotic behavior.
Finally, the day came. I had my act ready. I practiced all day long. When we got to the club, I knew Jay Leno told a white lie for me to agree to do the stand up. The club was not having an open mike night—it was celebrating its 24th anniversary and all the comedians were doing quick 4 minute sets with a bell ringing in between each one. I met guys I recognized from their cable comedy specials and late night tv. Some were writers on sitcoms. I was in over my head. Very funny Jay. Very funny. So who introduces me but Jimmy Brogan, the comic I saw that Sunday night we saw Jay perform. When I walked out, the room looked bigger than when I sat in it. I worked out some material using my John Travolta voice, and low and behold, I got a good laugh in the room! Wow that felt good. Then I switched things up to Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Homer Simpson and a few others before the bell rang. I did it! 4 minutes under my belt. When I left the stage, Mike the owner was in his office on the phone waving me to come in. “First time, how did it feel?” he asked. “Like my heart was beating out of my chest,” I replied. “Well way to go. Here, someone's on the line for you.” He hands me the phone. “Hey Eric! It's Jay. How'd it go out there tonight?” Are you kidding me? Jay Leno called to see how it went for me. Unbelievable. That was a once in a lifetime moment right there, and I never get tired of telling this story.
People have had a lot to say about Jay Leno over the past few years, but I'll tell you what--Nobody's nicer than Jay Leno. He's a “stand-up” guy in more ways than one.