First published in the May 28 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Over the years, numerous entertainers have been indelibly associated with Burbank: From Ron Howard who grew up here and attended John Burroughs High School, and Gary Owens, the announcer on the 1960s comedy show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” who coined the phrase “Beautiful Downtown Burbank,” to Johnny Carson who, when he brought “The Tonight Show” to Burbank in 1972, gave the phrase even further notoriety.
While those performers have been a part of the Burbank story, there is, perhaps, no one in entertainment more associated with Burbank than Jay Leno.
With the city serving as the home for both his iteration of “The Tonight Show” and elaborate car collection, Leno developed a penchant for driving his classic autos around town and frequenting local merchants and restaurants. For that reason, rare is the Burbanker who hasn’t had at least one (and usually numerous) Leno sightings and encounters.
This past Wednesday marked a milestone in Leno’s life. It was 30 years ago, on May 25, 1992, after Carson’s departure, that Leno took over the reins of NBC’s venerable late-night talk show.
Serving as both the fourth and sixth host of “The Tonight Show,” Leno hosted the Burbank chat-fest until Feb. 6, 2014, when he turned the desk over to Jimmy Fallon, who brought the show back to New York.
While “The Tonight Show” may be gone from Burbank, Leno remains a regular presence. Continuing to do his stand-up routine in clubs all over the country, he has also been making regular appearances at Flappers Comedy Club and Restaurant in downtown Burbank.
“Jay has been doing shows at Flappers to help us get audiences back after the pandemic,” said the club’s owner, Barbara Holliday. “He isn’t accepting any compensation, and we are very grateful to him for doing that.”
Holliday’s partner, David Reinitz, added that not only are Leno’s appearances bringing back audiences, they are also making it possible for them to donate a portion of the proceeds from his shows to Chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, which is helping to feed people in Ukraine.
This past Saturday evening, while having a pre-show steak dinner in the green room prepared by the club’s new chef, Leno shrugged when he was lauded for what he is doing for Flappers.
“Look, I love to perform and make people laugh, and I’ve found they tend to laugh harder if they know the money is going towards a good cause,” Leno said. “To me, helping out Flappers and World Central Kitchen just seems like the right thing to do.”
While Holliday and Reinitz have praised Leno for what he is doing, Leno also has great respect for them.
“Barbara and David have really done a nice job with Flappers, and I think their secret is that they keep it, at best, R-rated,” Leno reasoned. “Too many clubs today present comedians who are just too filthy. So, yes, people come out for a show, but they don’t come back, and in today’s world you can’t make it with half an audience. For a comedy club to make it, you need everybody — mom, dad, the kids, the in-laws. I don’t think people mind material that is a little risqué, but Flappers attracts a crowd of regular people who pretty much know what they are going to get and will let you know when you come close to crossing the line.”
Asked why after hitting the pinnacle of comedy by hosting “The Tonight Show” he still does club performances, Leno was pragmatic.
“I’m primarily a nightclub performer, who was just lucky to get a great TV job that lasted 22 years,” he said. “But even when I was doing ‘The Tonight Show’ I still did clubs on the weekends.”
Opining that too many comedians become isolated from their audiences once they become successful, Leno said they run the risk of no longer finding themselves in situations in which they deal with real people, which serves as fodder for new material.
As an example, Leno explained that he travels a lot and funny things are always happening to him.
“I don’t travel with an entourage. It’s just me,” he said. “So, I was recently doing a show at a casino hotel in Milwaukee. The casino was open, but the hotel wasn’t finished yet. So, they put me up in a hotel downtown. After my show, I came off stage, was taken back to the hotel and went to bed. The next day I got up and decided to walk around and, about a half an hour later, I realized I had no idea where I was or what hotel I was staying in. So, I take out my key card to get the name of the hotel and the only thing on it is a picture of a woman in a spa.”
Noticing two young cops sitting in their patrol car, Leno felt they could assist him.
“I go over and start telling them I’m trying to find my hotel, but I don’t know which one it is or what direction it was in, and the next thing I hear is one of the cops saying over the radio: ‘We have a 51-50 here, a confused elderly gentlemen who doesn’t know where he is or where he is staying.’ So, I’m trying to better explain my story and I tell them I’m Jay Leno and I’m in town doing a show, and they don’t care, so I just start laughing. That’s the kind of thing that always happens to me because I’m still out on the road.”
As for concerns some stand-up comedians have following the recent on-stage attacks of Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, Leno says he isn’t worried in the least.
“My audience is around my age. So, by the time they could even get out of their chair to come after me I can be halfway to Cleveland,” he said, laughing. “Besides, I’ve dealt with my share of difficult crowds. When I started out, I worked this place in Orlando where you had to do your act from behind chicken wire because people were known to throw bottles at the comedians.”
As he finished his steak and prepared to take the stage at Flappers, Leno said another reason he is never worried on stage is because he is only there for one reason: “To make people laugh.”
“I was friends with Rodney Dangerfield for 45 years and I had no idea whom he ever voted for or what his politics were. All he cared about was being funny,” Leno said. “It was just about the jokes. That’s the same for me. All I care about is if what I am doing is funny and are people laughing.”
People will be laughing at Flappers tonight, May 28, as Leno will be performing again. Tickets for this evening’s show and his future appearances may be purchased at flapperscomedy.com.
DAVID LAURELL may be reached by email at email@example.com or (818) 563- 1007.