The Kindest Thing Jay Leno Ever Did for Me
Photos by Rhea Butcher
After a lot of hard work coming up as a stand-up comic in Los Angeles, I got a call late in the evening on Labor Day telling me that I’d be appearing on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson the following night. This would be my network TV debut. I actually appreciate that I didn’t know sooner than the night before. I didn't have that one last time to run my jokes and eat shit because I was too hopped up on making them perfect to properly tell them. As it was, the Friday before Labor Day I went up to San Francisco to do two shows at Lost Weekend Video, an actual video store! With videos! Lost Weekend built an awesome twenty seat room into their basement for movie screenings and comedy and such. The last sets I got in before taping Late Late were there—loose and low pressure and literally in a basement.
Walking into CBS Studios, a producer on the show introduced me to another gal taping a segment for a later episode of Late Late. She was wearing some sheath dress that looked completely perfect and was gliding around in heels—the heel of which basically had the same diameter of a single human hair. I was wearing an old shirt I had picked out to sweat through during the drive over and then arrive in. I love to make a sweaty entrance.
While she was running through talking points I found out that Elettra—that lovely heeled lady—is not only a model with a successful cooking show, she also happens to be Isabella Rossellini’s daughter which means she is also Ingrid's Bergman's grandkid. That’s some serious royal Hollywood blood. I am, however, Brenda Esposito’s daughter, and my mom's a rocking lady from Ohio.
I was standing next to Elettra, trying to comprehend her ankle bones, when the other guest on my episode walked in. He was beautifully clad in denim, like a patriot, and also, he was Jay Leno. It’s pretty rare that late night hosts have an opportunity to guest on one another’s shows. They all work similar hours, often for different networks, and usually, they don’t overlap. Jay Leno being the other guest on my particular episode of Craig’s show was like a Jetsons/Flintstones crossover movie with less time travel. I introduced myself to Jay and then began pacing around near the craft service table's sandwich platter, staring at my joke notes as if they might become sentient and just do the set for me. I was giving those notes some eye loving partially because I hadn't run my set in a few days and partially because I always imagine I'll go blank on everything I've ever written and then have to say, "Well, I forgot to know anything. Goodnight!" before walking directly out of the room and quitting standup forever. And I was nervous as hell.
Jay went into his dressing room to change from his denim to his suit. Why he did this I will never understand. Can't get a sharper look than denim. When he returned to the green room, I was still pacing around. He walked over and said to me, “I could tell you were the comic when I walked in. You don’t need to look at that. Put it away. It’s your act—you know it. You'll be great.” Jay Leno said this to me. Not only was that stellar, stellar advice given at the perfect moment, but also, he didn't have to be talking to me. Who am I? (I'm Cameron Esposito.) He could have sat in his dressing room, or he could have ignored me. Instead, I got the stand-up equivalent of a coach's butt slap to his star player from late night TV's most-watched host.
A few minutes later, as I waited backstage to go on, Craig came over to meet me. He was charming and friendly and told me, “Jay’s gonna stay and watch you.” In fact, they both did. As I walked out of the curtain to hit my mark, I was facing the audience. But really, I was focused on Jay and Craig sitting off to my right, about 20 feet away, watching me. Comics always play to the other comics in the room—that's who we want to laugh. So for some reason, either because I love crowd work or because I wanted to play to the comics in the room, I decided to refer to Jay directly in my act. It was improvised—I mentioned that like me and all lesbians everywhere, Jay loves denim. Craig called over to me, asking if I was calling Jay a lesbian. I pointed out Jay’s pompadour. We went back and forth. It was loose and fun and wildly unexpected.
It’s an honor for a comic to be invited to the couch to sit with the host after a late night set. Not all comics are invited, and certainly not all comics are invited to sit after their debut. But, after our back and forth, Craig invited me over. To be invited to sit between two late night hosts? I honestly don't know if that has happened before. And what did they say to me when I sat there? They said: "White men are on their way out. You're the future." Final words spoken on the show? Jay yelled into the air, "Lesbians rule!" As my friend and fellow comic John Roy wrote to me after seeing the set, “Who would even think to ask a genie lamp for a first TV appearance where you do panel with two hosts at once, make fun of Leno and then he literally says ‘you’re the future?’” Not anyone.
For me, there was one more element to that moment. Like most comics, I draw material from my life. I am a lesbian, so when I talk about my relationship, I talk about being with a woman, and when I talk about politics I talk about it from the perspective of someone who is still fighting for equal rights. It's not an act—it's my life, which I've turned into my act. I am very comfortable with myself and my act, but I have read some comments [DON'T READ THE COMMENTS] below videos of mine on the internet. My Late Late set centered around my recent engagement and I did wonder what CBS's middle of the road audience would think of my really gay, really normal marriage to another human who is a woman. Turns out, they were on board with it, just as they absolutely should have been. People can be shitty in faceless internet comments. In person, most audiences I've dealt with are open, interested, and pretty chill. Jay and Craig were more than that—they were an audience of comics, ready to step in and joke along with me and ready to improve the show together.
Listen, I know those things happened with The Tonight Show and Conan. Those of us who are not Conan O'Brien or Jay Leno won't ever really know that full story. At the time, alternative comics like myself tended to be pretty invested in Conan's side of things. A few years later, Conan's show is going strong and Jay's about to retire again. Television is one of those industries without a ton of job security. It's a lot of up and downs and a lot of public failures and quiet successes. So I'd like to weigh in now, before he leaves late night, as saying, "Hey thanks, Mr. Leno." You were kind when you didn't have to be, quick on your feet, and genuinely funny. That stuff matters. Now, take this butt slap, get out there and finish strong. And then imagine the sound of a butt slap.
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