Jay Leno has written just the kind of memoir you’d expect: Amiable, mildly funny, completely toothless. A pastiche of anecdotes suitable for reading on a plane or on a couch during commercials, Leading With My Chin is most interesting for what it completely avoids about Leno’s career. How did the man survive a grueling battle within NBC to inherit Johnny Carson’s throne? This book never tells you. How did he reach the agonizing decision to fire Helen Kushnick, his manager of 17 years, when she became a foul-mouthed Fury as the executive producer of The Tonight Show? Sorry, her name never comes up. Does the stand-up comedian offer insights into his private struggles or intriguing perspectives on the famous people he has known? Nope. Instead, the comic who once regularly appeared on Late Night With David Letterman to rail against life’s absurdities in ”What’s Your Beef?” segments would now have the world believe he has no beef. Or backbone. He has merely become the nicest comic on television — and one of the blandest autobiographers.
For a man who’s climbed to the summit of a cutthroat profession, Leno strangely enjoys depicting himself as a naive bumbler, a hapless dupe. In college, he buys a term paper and turns it in without reading it first, and gets caught. As an aspiring stand-up working strip clubs, he encounters a naked dancer who tries to solicit him; he asks for her phone number. When he attempts to thumb a ride in West Hollywood, he’s shocked to discover that drivers think he’s a male prostitute.
Early in his career, he visits the office of his new ICM agent and sees his torn photo in the trash. What does he do? ”Naturally,” Leno writes, ”I wasn’t nervy enough to call the guy on it.” Huh? This from a man who has spent 20 years facing hecklers in nightclubs? Not only did the comedian fail to come up with a snappy line back then, he doesn’t even indulge himself now. Coauthor Bill Zehme (an Esquire senior writer) would’ve done better had he pushed the comedian harder.
But Leno absolutely refuses to settle scores. He wants only to be a people pleaser. He tells us that one night at Catch a Rising Star some hoodlums near the stage decked a comic during his set. The comedian Richard Belzer went on next and said, ”I see we’ve got a hit man in the front row! You like to hit people? What are you, pal? Mafia?” The thugs coldcock Belzer, who’s dragged from the stage. Then it’s Leno’s turn. ”Hello, SIR!” he enthuses. ”How are you tonight? Very nice to have you!” At which point you wish you were reading Belzer’s book.
If nothing else, Leno has proven a master at self-preservation. ”I’ve never been better at anything than anybody else,” he writes in what may be the book’s only moment of introspection. ”I would always just have to work a little harder to keep up or maybe even pull ahead. Like the turtle who raced the hare, I plowed forward, slow and steady.” Which is exactly what reading this book feels like. It may be a fine work ethic, but it doesn’t exactly produce divine lunacy, be it in a book or on late-night TV. C+