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The history of a joke

We get the story behind one of Leno’s nightly quips

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Some jokes make it. Some don’t. Jay Leno writes most of his own, and he employs writers to do more. Aspiring joke writers from far-flung places fax jokes to his home; friends submit the rest. As a ”gag bonus,” Leno pays pals $50 for each joke that makes it to the air. This is the story of one of those, dubbed the Joke of Doom, written by Team Leno leader Jim Brogan.

After Leno tries out the jokes at the club, the pros get into the act. Some jokes are too offensive or too blistering. Others are dated. A couple need an extra word here or there. Brogan, the comedian whose opinion carries the most punch with Leno, is summoned to the Leno household. As Monday night fades into Tuesday morning, with just hours before the Tonight Show monologue, the comedians at Leno’s home — Brogan, Jim Edwards, and Ron Richards — debate the merits of one particular joke: ”I guess the best advice for Ivana Trump is ‘Don’t hire Merv Griffin’s lawyers.”’

Edwards: I don’t think that’ll work.
Brogan: I think with rewording that’s a killer joke: ‘I think Ivana’s in worse trouble. She’s hired Merv Griffin’s lawyers.’
Leno: nah.
Brogan: No? How about it this way, though: I think Ivana Trump’s really in trouble. She just hired Merv Griffin’s lawyer.’

The joke is greeted with sounds of silence.

Brogan: I think that’s a murderer. I think that’s a killer joke.
Edwards: Do you think enough people are going to know about the connection between Merv and Trump?
Brogan: Yes, it’s a big deal that they fought over Atlantic City. No,that’s a big story.
Leno: don’t think it’s worth fighting over this joke. It’s all right.
Brogan: I think it’s a killer joke.
Richards I think it’s an ‘I-told-you-so’ joke.
Brogan: Who’s told who?
Edwards: Tomorrow we’ll be going to you, ‘I told you so.’
Leno: All right. In deference to Mr. Brogan, who hasn’t had anything yet, we’ll keep it in for now. It may not make the final cut.

Later, as the final cut nears, Leno whips out the hatchet.

Leno: Let’s see, Jessica Hahn is in, safe house is in, Merv Griffin is out.
Brogan: Aw, that’s a killer joke.
Leno: You want it in?
Brogan: I think it’s absolute murder.
Leno: You really think it’s the best (Trump) joke in there?
Brogan: I think it’s a very bright joke.
Edwards: I think it’s a very bright joke that won’t get anything.

Finally, Leno relents. The joke is a go.

Brogan: No matter how big a laugh that gets, it’s not gonna be enough.

On The Tonight Show, Leno does the joke: ”I think Ivana Trump is gonna be in trouble with the upcoming divorce proceedings. Turns out she’s just hired Merv Griffin’s lawyer.”

There is a noticeable absence of laughter.

Backstage after the show, Leno says, ”I knew that joke wouldn’t work. Oh, I’m gonna get Brogan tonight.”