Special Report: Jay Leno has always destroyed what he wants in the process of acquiring it


Each Thursday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

If Roast Beef Could Fly and Leading With My Chin

Date: 2004; 1996
Publisher: Harper Collins; Simon & Schuster
Discovered at: Goodwill
The Covers Promise: The intimate thoughts of a man with no apparent capacity for self-investigation

Hey, Can You Tell Which Quote Comes From the Book for Four Year Olds?

“As you can probably tell from my burger story earlier, I have a deep love for meat, and it began early.”

“Ironic but true: McDonald’s was responsible for my career in comedy.”

Actually, they’re both from the book for grown-ups.

Denim enthusiast Jay Leno has managed to make many millions of dollars in comedy despite the notable handicap of being Jay Leno. His secret: tenacity, a trait so strong in him that he still hosts The Tonight Show a full seven years after announcing his retirement.

There, five nights a week, he shoves himself into a suit and cracks jokes about how Glee seems a little swishy or how Justin Bieber’s haircut falls short of Leno’s last-century standard of masculinity — a curious target considering the way Leno’s own gray dome of ‘do suggests he fancies himself America’s Comedy Grandma.

To ease us through the couple hours each week when he is not on TV, Leno occasionally writes books. Or dictates them. Chatty banalities like Leading With My Chin and If Roast Beef Could Fly might easily be transcripts of anecdotes hollered from beneath the hoods of Leno’s cars.

In fact, for If Roast Beef Could Fly, the book for the millions of kids who look up to Jay Leno, Leno merely reprises an anecdote from Leading With My Chin, the book for adults who hate reading. Like adultery in John Updike, or violence in Joyce Carol Oates, flying roast beef is a Leno obsession, a raw, repeated impulse that can reveal to us the author’s soul.

So let’s look at the story Leno cuts and pastes returns to time and again.

In Andover, Massachusetts, sometime in the early 1950s, Jay Leno’s father purchased a rotisserie grill for his new patio. Young Jay helped build all this, carping in the kids’ book “When my dad decides to make something, he always calls it a ‘project.’ Fixing the car is a ‘project.’ Cleaning the gutters is a ‘project.'”

(Just like on his show, Leno loves nothing more than pointing out that the everyday people he celebrates are all dumbasses.)

Eventually the dad hosts the rotisserie’s inaugural barbecue. Tiny Jay’s “deep love for meat” makes waiting for dinner seem impossible, so he does what any kid would do: sneaks out to the grill, drags his comb across the spinning meat, and then licks the comb.

All while dressed like a teensy talk-show host, of course.

And it’s worth pointing out that elsewhere in Leading With My Chin Leno admits to climbing through bedroom windows to tie girls’ panties into knots and sneaking into the girls’ restroom to pour water into the Kotex dispenser, which he claimed would “expand and tear apart” as the tampons “absorbed the water.”

One case of sneaking he doesn’t mention: hiding in a broom closet in ’91 to eavesdrop on NBC executives.

Anyway, the comb gets caught in the roast beef. Young Jay freaks out and flees, and nobody’s the wiser until his dad at last slices into the meat surrounded by friends and family. This is what happens:

“Then a big chunk of plastic fell on the plate and went clank! The meat was all pink underneath. My dad started breathing hard like he was going to explode.

He said, ‘What the hell is this?!'”

That’s from the memoir. Here’s the same moment in the kids’ book.

“A big chunk of my comb falls on the plate and goes clank! The meat underneath it is all pink. Dad starts breathing hard like he’s going to explode.

‘What the heck is this?!’ he bellows.”

Eventually, in both books, young Jay explains himself. Can you guess which book the father’s response comes from?

“How the hell does a comb melt on roast beef? Do you know how much that roast beef cost? Give me that goddamned thing!”

Then comes the climax. Screaming profanity in front of the guests, Jay’s dad grabs the roast beef and chucks it through the window.

For many kids, this might be a moment of horror or shame. But for Leno, it is a triumph. The dog leaps up, catches the roast beef, and everyone laughs and applauds and satisfies themselves with potato salad.

The dog, meanwhile, tears the roast beef to shreds.

This story appears in both books — albeit expurgated for the kids — and on a CD accompanying If Roast Beef Could Fly. It is something of a parable, perhaps one Leno has turned to in troubled times, a reminder that there is honor in spoiling the prize that everybody wants but nobody can have.

The clear interpretation:
Dad = David Letterman/Conan O’Brien/Jimmy Fallon
Roast Beef = The Tonight Show
Comb = Leno’s tenacity
The Dog = NBC executives
Friends and Family Denied a Tasty Meal but Still Satisfied Just Enough to Vindicate Leno = the American public

Shocking Detail: In his aimless memoir, Leno never once mentions The Tonight Show succession crisis or his infamous manager Helen Kushnick. Instead, he and co-author Bill Zehme dole out gentle memories of a gentle life of gentle comedy. (One un-promising anecdote opens with, “My most memorable TV-watching experience . . .”)

Here’s what I learned about Leno:

  • His first on-stage comedy performance was at a meeting for McDonalds franchisers.
  • Working at McDonalds in high school, Leno was known as the “French-Fry Cut-Up” for his “unflagging dedication to goofing around with [his] coworkers.
  • He carries lots of cash. In the ’70s, young Jay twice empties his wallet for criminals, coming up with $70 and $73. More impressively, during a meeting with a dean he whips out $1200 to pay for his first summer of courses at Emerson College (“an esteemed Boston school”), explaining to neither the dean nor the readers just how a French-Fry Cut-Up came across such a wad. Then, years later, Leno tapes $18,000 to his body to buy a car after a visit to the White House.
  • In college Leno performed in strip clubs and even a Boston brothel. This is interesting, but Leno’s memoir has the feeling of an R-rated movie edited for television, so we never learn much about this.
  • Leno lived with hippies but has never smoked pot or had a beer.
  • Leno twice mentions sexual encounters, each of which offer invaluable insight into the man. First, working for a foreign car dealer on Boston’s Commonwealth Ave, Leno gets it on in Joe Kennedy’s Rolls Royce. (We hear much more about the car than the act or the girl.) Later, a girl demands he tie her up, and Leno — always the gentle everydude — obliges, but not without letting us know how he found this all fruity.
  • P.C. hippies jeered Leno’s first Boston performance, a sketch wherein he played Tonto in a bank branch saying “Me want loan.”
  • Leno once terrified his stoned hippy roommates with a starter pistol.
  • Leno occasionally was mistake for Donovan.
  • Leno once felt up Fran Drescher in a movie.
  • Leno demonstrates his old friendship with David Letterman by reprinting page after page of transcripts of Leno’s appearances on Late Night.
  • Leno never mentions any falling out with Letterman, but he does spend half a page on a woman who showed up on The People’s Court wearing curlers.

With just nine pages left in which to reveal to us who he actually is, or what comedy means to him, or how he won The Tonight Show, or why a guy tenacious enough to ascend to the heights of the entertainment industry demands that we think of him as a bumbling regular joe, Leno starts in on a long story about a cracked toilet seat and his father’s love of warranties.

Here’s how you lay out a page, everybody!