EW follows the some-time host of ''The Tonight Show'' as he comes up with the opening laughs

As the electric gate guarding Jay Leno’s Southern California home swings open just after midnight, the caravan carrying what could be called Team Leno quickly pulls in and parks. There is serious business to be done and, besides, the ice cream is melting.

This is no time for rookies. Later that day — a Tuesday — Leno must stand alone in Studio One at NBC Burbank and deliver a seven-minute monologue to about 7 million Americans. The Tonight Show is the wrong place to bomb. Leno and three comedian pals must polish at least 25 one-liners before sunup.

Jay Leno, 39, has what he calls the best job in show business. He is the regular guest host filling in for Johnny Carson on the longest-running, most popular comedy showcase on TV. On Tuesdays, while Carson is home in Malibu playing tennis, Leno is under the gun in front of the mike. That’s why Mondays are so long.

We caught up with the comedian in early March and spent a couple of days observing, step by step, the making of a monologue — a monologue that will get a whole lot of laughs.

Scribbles and Bits

The monologue process begins as soon as Leno wakes up in the morning. ”I do it every day, all the time,” he says. ”I mean, it’s a 24-hour thing. If I think of something, I’ll make a note. And then when I go home I put them on the cards. It’s a lot like lifting weights. You’ve got to do it every day.”

All week, whether he’s traveling on a plane, waiting backstage at a club in Boise, Idaho, or tinkering with his two dozen motorcycles in one of his two garages, he is thinking monologue. By Monday evening, Leno has a stack of 60 or so three-by-five index cards, each carrying one joke. Some are surefire zingers. Others need jiggering. Very few are totally unfunny. At 6:30 p.m., Leno fires up the engine of one of his dozen cars (they’re a hobby) and drives the half-hour south to Hermosa Beach and the Comedy & Magic Club, testing ground for his monologue material. He likes the club because the makeup of the crowd closely reflects The Tonight Show‘s audience: Not too hip. Not too young. Squeaky clean.

Both the 7 and 10 o’clock shows are sellouts (the club holds 300), as they usually are on Mondays when Leno is appearing, and club owner Mike Lacey is beaming. At $15 a head and a minimum of two drinks per customer, there are lots of dollar signs out there. The waitresses scurry around fueling the crowd while Leno slips through the kitchen into the TV room in back, where idle comics wait for their turn under the lights. He snacks on some chips (no, not Doritos) and begins flipping through his index cards. He is completely relaxed.

”If I think about the Tonight Show monologue, the jokes are just 100 percent disposable,” Leno says. ”The jokes really have no meaning even the next week. You know, like the Trump thing is kind of funny for about another 10 days and after that you just forget about it. Like I’ve got a Greyhound joke that I’m going to try tonight: ‘You know, they’re not really striking for more money. They just want the right to stand up once in a while.”’

Leno returns to his stack of joke cards. They are divided into categories: Trump, Greyhound, Washington Mayor Marion Barry, and so on. He chucks out jokes right and left, and soon the discard pile is bigger than the pile of keepers. This is round one of The Cut.

”Here’s one,” he says. ”’What are you supposed to do in an earthquake? Stand in a door. That’s right — stand in a door. That’s great advice. You know what that means? That means that if there is an earthquake the only people that are gonna be left alive are gonna be hookers, transients, winos. Who else stands around in doorways?”’

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