Jay Leno: 180 Laughs in 90 Minutes
For some reason, we don’t get Fox Movies on DIRECTV, so I have never seen the “Fox Legacy” series. But when I read about Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Tom Rothman making a name for himself as host of that series—acquiring a cult following and a ton of fan mail, including a note from Steven Spielberg—I chuckled to myself.
In a world of simply terrible presenters and speechmakers, it’s a delight to come across someone that is really good.
The Myth of PowerPoint
The 10th issue of this e-zine, back in July 2005, was titled, “Power Corrupts, PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely”—a quote by Edward Tufte, Yale professor emeritus and a prolific author.
That e-zine was triggered by a Direct Marketing Days New York conference, where I drifted into myriad sessions to find out what was new in the industry from people with big jobs who were either emcees or panelists. Alas, too many of these sad sacks used teeny words on big-screen PowerPoint presentations that attendees in the first row could barely make out. And these presenters read this gibberish from the screen in a monotone. No charm. No enthusiasm. Just people who loved to hear themselves read. Whereupon they sat down to tepid applause, and members of the panel passed the next speaker’s laptop up to the podium for more of the same.
Late that morning, I went into the main auditorium to hear keynote speaker Harvey “Mr. Make Things Happen” Mackay, founder of MackayMitchell Envelope Co., syndicated columnist, blogger and author of several New York Times best sellers (“Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,” “Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt” and “Sharkproof: Get the Job You Want, Keep the Job You Love”). I wrote:
The 72-year-old Mackay marched to the podium, shook hands with his introducer and promptly strode past the podium to the front of the stage and flashed a dazzling smile. Dressed in an elegantly tailored blue suit that was accented by a bright red tie and matching red pocket square, Mackay has a square jaw and a rugged, tan face beneath a full head of beautifully trimmed white hair.
No PowerPoint here. On the two giant screens on either side of the stage was Harvey Mackay live and twice as large as life. He spent 50 minutes regaling his audience with anecdotes, bon mots, business philosophy and an endless string of ideas on how to push the envelope and differentiate yourself from rest of the herd.
Mackay used no notes, no teleprompter. It was just Mackay relating to the live audience.
The Art of Effective In-Person Communications
In Italy and the western Mediterranean, there are ancient amphitheaters where you can sit in the stone seats quite high up and converse with a colleague on the stage below without shouting. The acoustics were (and are) fantastic.
With the advent of public address systems, radio and television, a speaker can reach much larger audiences. Marshall McLuhan, author of the 1967 masterpiece “The Medium is the Message,” described television as a cool medium, while radio was a hot medium.
For example, Adolf Hitler was a powerful communicator on radio and in person at giant mass rallies where he could scream and gesticulate with great effect. Had television existed in the 1930s, Hitler—filling television screens across Germany—would have been seen as a raving, evil buffoon and very likely not raised to power.
The John F. Kennedy Technique
One of the greatest speechmakers/presenters/communicators in my lifetime was John F. Kennedy. Not only good looking, articulate, inspiring and frequently funny, JFK had an intuitive understanding of how to best communicate—in person and using the media.
Whether he was talking one-on-one, to small group in a living room, a crowd of 50, 500, 5,000 or 50,000, Kennedy struck the right tone to engage his listeners. He used a number of techniques.
* When on television, John Kennedy treated the camera lens—the one with the red light that signified it was live—as a conversation partner with whom he was having a tete-a-tete. Even if the camera was across the room, he realized his head might appear life-size on the viewer’s television screen and he had to be cool. Check out the hyperlink below—JFK’s speech to protestant ministers in Houston, who were virulently anti-Catholic and threatened to scuttle his chances for winning the presidency. Kennedy won one of the narrowest victories in presidential history, and this speech was pivotal.
* The opposite of JFK was Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, who vied for the 1960 nomination and lost. Humphrey was a powerful orator but was incapable of bringing his bubbling verbosity down to the intimacy required for successful communication to a TV audience. As one critic described HHH on television, “He would come into your living room and vomit all over the rug.”
* In making a speech to a large gathering, Kennedy always spoke to the last row in the balcony, but at the same time read the faces of the folks down front to see how his talk was being received. Some called this “the helicopter effect.” Kennedy had the unique ability to not only engage his audience, but also imagine himself hovering just over his shoulder like a helicopter—not only reading the crowd’s reaction, but also judging his own performance in real time.
* Check out the illustration at the end of this story—the posthumous portrait of JFK by Jamie Wyeth, which floored Jacqueline Kennedy when she first saw it. It shows Kennedy’s left eye looking right at the viewer while his right eye is staring over your shoulder as though his brain is dreaming of some future scene or thinking through how he is performing in his conversation with you.
’The Tonight Show’
Long-time readers of this e-zine know that I was a page for NBC television in the mid-1950s while attending Columbia University. My job was to make sure audience members waiting to get in did not block the sidewalks, squeeze fat tourists into thin seats, and sometimes guard the stage door.
My favorite assignment: the original “Tonight Show” with Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs and Jack Paar. These men were masters of carrying on intimate interviews on the small screen. (In those days, all screens were small, and TV was black-and-white.) Another late-night host of the era was Dick Cavett, whose low-key interviews with Alfred Lunt, Lynne Fontaine, Noel Coward and Groucho Marx were legendary. Johnny Carson came onto the scene after I went into the Army and was the quintessential late-night host. Carson and Paar were the best listeners and had the quickest minds, in my view.
Last Saturday evening, my wife, Peggy, and I drove to Caesars in Atlantic City, N.J., for dinner and Jay Leno, who is very different from his predecessors. Although Italian, Leno uses the old-fashioned rat-tat-tat technique that was used by the borscht circuit comedians who got their starts in the Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City—Milton Berle, Henny Youngman and Alan King.
When he does “The Tonight Show,” Leno, after a boisterous introduction, comes downstage and greets members of the audience with handshakes, high fives and knuckle bumps. But once into his monologue, the comedic bits behind the desk and celebrity interviews, he brings it all down to the intimacy required for the viewer’s living room or bedroom.
How would Jay Leno make the transition from the close quarters of a TV studio to the sprawling Circus Maximus Auditorium at Caesars Atlantic City? The house lights went dark, the star was introduced over the public address system and Jay Leno roared onto the stage like a runaway train, microphone in hand, delivering one-liners that got a laugh every 20 to 30 seconds. No blue material; none of George Carlin’s seven forbidden words. He was just plain funny. His voice was strong, easily reaching to the back of the house, and his gestures were flamboyant and expressive, perfect for the big theater. Nobody missed hearing (or seeing) a punch line.
Among the subjects covered: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Jackson, Jeffrey Dahmer (who murdered 17 men and boys in the 1980s), and Lyle and Erik Menendez (who murdered their parents and are serving life sentences without parole). Each Menendez got married in jail, but neither is allowed conjugal visits. Leno speculated on how the women broke the happy news to their parents.
My favorite riff was on Warren Jeff, the Utah polygamist who reportedly sired 250 children. “This could be rough on the middle child,” Leno mused. “Imagine being child number 125 ...”
We drove back to Philly sated with laughter.
I read somewhere (or saw an interview) that Leno invests his “Tonight Show” money and lives off stand-up gigs. Between now and the end of the year, he will be making 18 weekend appearances—two per weekend—at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. In Atlantic City, he did two sets on Saturday—7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.—in the Circus Maximus, which seats 1,100. Tickets averaged $100, and, with the house pretty near sold out, the take must have been around $200,000 for the night. In Vegas, the Mirage’s Danny Gans Theater seats 1,700, so the take for two shows (assuming capacity) at $99 is $337,600. Whatever the split, Leno does very, very well.
More to the point, it is obvious that Jay Leno loves getting out of the precisely timed environment of the television studio and into the real world of stand-up comedy, where he interacts big with big audiences and—in the argot of Variety—is boffo. His bantering with the folks in the first few rows was hilarious—and all ad lib, as he had no idea what they would say.
Leno is at the top of his game, knows his media, knows his audiences and is obviously comfortable in his own skin.
Everyone left feeling we got our money’s worth—and more!
This is something that all marketers should aspire to.
P.S. Jay Leno describes his business model in six words: “Write joke. Tell joke. Get check.”
- The New York Times
- Adolf Hitler
- Alan King
- Alfred Lunt
- Consider John Kennedy
- Dick Cavett
- Edward Tufte
- Erik Menendez
- Ernie Kovacs
- Groucho Marx
- Henny Youngman
- Hubert H. Humphrey
- Jack Paar
- Jamie Wyeth
- John F. Kennedy Technique
- Johnny Carson
- Lynne Fontaine
- Make Things Happen Mackay
- Marshall McLuhan
- Noel Coward
- P.S. Jay Leno
- Steve Allen
- Steven Spielberg I
- Tom Rothman