It is hard to follow someone that is a legend in their field. College football is one of the best examples. Ask Ray Perkins after he followed Bear Bryant as coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide. What about Ron Zook that followed Steve Spurrier at Florida? Ray Goff followed Vince Dooley at Georgia. At Auburn, the best example was Doug Barfield who followed “Shug” Jordan.
The same curse applies across all types of professions. Andrew Johnson following Abraham Lincoln is an obvious example. Yet, there are exceptions to that rule. Tim Cook has done pretty good at Apple after following Steve Jobs.
Jay Leno followed Johnny Carson as the host of The Tonight Show in 1992, after 30 years with Carson behind the desk. It was somewhat of a shock as it was widely speculated that David Letterman would take over the show. Leno went on to enjoy a long career as the host for 22 years, eventually taping more episodes than Carson himself.
Mary Lou and I joined a packed house at the Gogue Performing Arts Center on Monday night as Jay Leno made his first appearance in Auburn. It was an entertaining show that brought laughter to the house over and over.
Some observations I had after reflecting on the performance. First, how does a man that is 72 years old stand on stage for an hour and a half telling jokes and stories without a single note. I cannot remember a joke someone told at breakfast for more than 24 hours. Of course, Leno has been telling some of those jokes for over 50 years, so I guess practice makes perfect.
It is possible to make people laugh for 90 minutes without telling an off-color joke or using profanity. Leno keeps part of his dialogue current with references to current events and changing times. Other parts of his repertoire could have been told by my grandfather.
A comedian is successful when he connects with his audience. It felt like Leno was just talking with the crowd in Auburn. It was not that he customized his words to fit a southern audience so much as he was letting you in on the joke itself. The inflections of his voice and the expressions on his face were part of the way that he communicated with us, a talent honed from his many years on television.
“I feel for people that die on Valentine’s Day. How much would their flowers be then, ten grand?”
“The Flintstones wore furs, they ate red meat, and had a stone age philosophy. They were the first Republicans.”
“Marriage is grand. Divorce is about twenty grand.”
“Britney Spears said that if she was not famous, she would be a teacher. Thank God she is famous.”
One or two liners can bring a smile to your face. However, when they are combined with a constant dialogue, body language, facial expressions, and voice inflections, they can result in a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Leno is not just famous as a late-night talk show host. He happens to own the largest private car collection in the United States. He currently owns 181 cars and 160 motorcycles. In fact, he has only sold one car in the past 30 years, a Tesla Model S that he sold at a celebrity auction. The most expensive car in Leno’s collection is a McLaren F1 which is currently worth $12 Million. The cheapest car Leno ever owned was a Chevy Vega.
Along with Leno, two mechanics work full time to keep everything running. Obviously, it takes considerable resources to maintain such a fleet of collectable automobiles. That is not really a problem for Leno as it is estimated that his current net worth is around $450 Million.
I walked out of the theater after having a pleasant evening. One of his quotes will live forever in my mind. You cannot stay mad at someone who makes you laugh. Now that I think about it, he is right.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org