The Night Jay Leno Used A Joke From Westchester

Jim Vespe on how a surprise call brought a little bit of Hollywood to Larchmont.

Illustration by Mike Tofanelli

Jim Vespe

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Oh, that Jay Leno.

When the phone rang, my wife answered it. She was annoyed.

“It’s your brother, doing a very good Jay Leno impression.”

I took the phone. “Hello, Jay,” I said, playing along.

“Hi, Jim, this is Jay Leno.”

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I was unconvinced. I had told my brother, Frank, I was sending jokes to Jay, and this call was typical Frank.

“You’ve gotten better,” I said. “Your Leno impression is much better than your pathetic Ronald Reagan.” It was 1987. Reagan was president, and New Rochelle native Leno had replaced Larchmont’s Joan Rivers as substitute host on The Tonight Show.

“I read your jokes, Jim,” the voice continued.

“Frank, you’ve even got his nasal New England twang down perfectly,” I interrupted. Now was the time to
expose my brother’s stunt. “Okay, Jay, which of my jokes did you like?” (I had not told Frank what jokes I’d sent
to Jay.)

“Well,” he began, “‘Kurt Waldheim [former secretary general of the United Nations, who had recently been revealed as a Nazi officer during World War II] must think people are stupid. Does he really think anybody believes the SS on his wartime uniform stood for ShortStop?’”

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I froze. This really was Jay Leno.

“Jay, I apologize,” I stammered. “It is you. I didn’t tell my brother which jokes I was sending.”

“No problem,” Jay replied. “Hey, if [your brother’s imitation] is that good, I might have him on the show.”

We talked for 15 minutes about our similar histories: class jokesters, marginal students, Westchester roots (his family founded Leno’s Clam Bar in New Rochelle). Then Jay mentioned that we both had Italian surnames. I said I had presumed he was Jewish. He asked why and I gave him three reasons: First, comedy is not a profession dominated by Christians. Leno sounds like it was shortened from something longer, the way a family I knew trimmed Lebowitz to Lebow. But most of all, his first name: I attended CCNY in the ’60s and probably knew 10 guys who called themselves Jay. Without exception, their legal names were Jacob. Therefore, I presumed I was talking to a guy who was probably named, but not baptized, Jacob Lenowitz.

The conversation soon ended. Jay had to prepare for his usual Sunday-night appearance at a comedy club, where he tried out material for use on future episodes of The Tonight Show. He invited me to send him additional material, and I did. And every Monday night, I turned on the Betamax before Jay’s monologue, hoping he would use one of my jokes. Eventually, I stopped taping, but continued watching.

And, of course, the first night I didn’t tape Jay’s monologue, he used one of my jokes, inspired by an article in a medical journal about condom recalls in France.

On Jay’s final Tonight Show episode, Billy Crystal mentioned that Jay had told 160,000 jokes. And I felt like a baseball player who had been to bat, just once, in the major leagues. But how many people get to bat even once?

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