Leno, Jay

Leno says he's silly, not raunchy


From the Feb. 13, 2001, Deseret News

Writers often work in a vacuum, and newspaper columnists are no exception. Never for a moment did it occur to me that my column about Jay Leno in last Friday's paper would actually be seen by Leno himself. Much less that he'd respond with a phone call.

But darned if he didn't do just that Monday afternoon.

Leno didn't call to complain, however — as he assured me several times. He just wanted to offer a "rebuttal" to some things I wrote about his transition from squeaky-clean stand-up comic to raunchy, late-night monologuist.

During our nearly 20-minute conversation, the host of NBC's "Tonight Show" was friendly and congenial, but he wasted no time before diving into the subject: "You know, it's an odd situation. I don't disagree with what you're saying, but you have a situation where, prior to five years ago, you couldn't even say these things. But when you watch the news and you see the kinds of things that are on there. . . .

"I don't think we do more than two jokes in an 11-minute monologue that have sexual content. We don't use four-letter words, and I try to get a feel of where we are on that."

Leno said the monologue that opens his show is built much like a newspaper. "We open with the big story of the day, then we move to sports and entertainment . . . but if there are 35 jokes in the monologue, and maybe three or four have a sexual reference or context. . . . "

"I don't disagree with you that the level of things has dropped overall. But I'm not sure how to combat it."


                                Jay Leno opens each 'Tonight Show' with a monologue

In essence, Leno says his jokes with sexual references are "silly," as opposed to the really raunchy competition on HBO and Showtime. But he also says he is playing to his audience, which isn't easy when it's as large as the one provided by television.

"I've played BYU and Provo and all through Utah," Leno said, "and I'm gearing myself directly to the audience I'm talking to. But when you're talking to 10 million people overnight, there's always going to be something."

Leno added that the demographic for his show is, naturally, on the young side. "You have the parents who complain and the kids who say, 'Oh, that's funny,' and you kind of just go with the kids."

But he insists that risque humor is not something he takes lightly. "I'm not that different than other people. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I've been married for 20 years. And it's probably true that my nightclub act is cleaner than the jokes on the 'Tonight Show,' 'cause I can tell stories. . . ."

Leno has also said he and his writers try to be responsible. "We do try to find a reasonable standard, I think. When we do a drug reference, we try to err on the side of conservatism, of where you're supposed to be. When I make jokes about the XFL and the sleazy cheerleaders, I think what we're really saying is, 'Is this really appropriate?' "

And he feels that some situations beg for a certain attitude. "People know I'm married for 20 years, and if I act silly or flirtatious with a guest, I think they know where I'm coming from. But I mean, when Pamela Anderson walks out and she's half naked, how does one not raise an eyebrow and say, 'Ahem.' "

When asked if he agrees the bar has been lowered perhaps a bit too far, Leno offers a one-liner that is at once amusing and telling. "It's a limbo bar now — how low can you? . . ."

Finally, Leno concluded by saying, "I don't want you to think it's something we don't wrestle with."

Fair enough. I just wish I could feel that Leno was winning this particular wrestling match.