Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How Jay Leno Made Me a Better Speaker !

                                    Jay's advice......work everywhere !
            In the stand up comedy world few things are more prestigious than being on the Tonight Show. In the heyday of the comedy boom it was the barometer that made stars out of countless comedians. Jay Leno was one of those stars.

Jay has always been known to comics as a workaholic.  He continued to do up to 300 dates a year, working every weekend, while he was guest hosting the Tonight Show.  An amazing feat when you consider most comedians hosting a show, such as the Tonight Show, usually give up their road gigs and concentrate on the very difficult task of getting ratings. Jay continued to work in an effort to hone his comedic skills which explains why he claims he hasn’t touched his Tonight Show money.
I have always admired Jay and had met him several times on the road in passing but a few years after he took over the show I had an opportunity to ask him for some sage advice.  A friend of mine and fellow comedian, Billy Martin, was appearing on the Tonight show and asked if I wanted to go along. As a young comedian I was certainly going to take him up on it. The lineup was a good one including Raquel Welch, Chazz Palminteri and my buddy, Billy.

The night was filled with surreal moments.  The two that stand out to me happened just about an hour before show time.  The legendary director, Fred de Cordova who stayed with Jay a few years after Johnny retired was looking for Raquel and spotted her on the couch conversing with Jay. He looked at Jimmy Brogan, a fellow comic who  booked the comedic talent for the show, and asked, “Where is Raquel”.  Jimmy pointed to the couch and Fred squinted as he looked through his trademark glasses and said, “Is that her or her mother, get her to makeup".   I have to tell you that I had been a big Raquel fan since first grade and she looked fantastic as she always did. I’m not sure if Fred was trying to be intentionally funny but it certainly was.

The second incident was that my friend Billy was not able to appear on the show because of the interruption of the OJ Simpson Bronco chase!  Right before they got to his slot in the show the network cut to the chase. What a weird twist. I remember him telling me jokingly that his family and friends back east were skeptical that he was on the Tonight Show and this incident would only reinforce their concerns.   It all worked out for him because he was rebooked for the show and now he is the Executive Producer of real time with Bill Maher on HBO.

 Just before the show, Jay stopped by to greet Billy and I had an opportunity to ask him what advice he could give a young comic and fan.  He said, “The most important thing I can tell you is to get on stage as much as you can wherever you can”. This was sage advice because a lot of comics and performers reach a level and think that they don’t have to work as hard at developing their skills.  They feel that if they are headlining they do not have to do small rooms or more difficult gigs.  That is a very foolish attitude to assume because when you stop performing in places you think will be challenging and only putting yourself in situations where you know you will succeed, you stop growing and developing your skills.

To be honest I really didn't like the advice Jay gave me at the time. I was just off a national television appearance and was in Hollywood auditioning for roles and other TV shows. I felt that I had put in my time and was now a national headline act and I felt that the small jobs were beneath me.    I couldn't have been more wrong. You see I was too young to realize that most of the audiences I had been working the previous seven years were all comedy club audiences in a controlled atmosphere. I was one of those guys who felt that if the audience didn't laugh at my jokes it was on them and certainly not my performance.   However, I began to contemplate what Jay told me.   I slowly started to take gigs that I thought were risky or beneath me.  Since then I have performed at a rest home, a hospital, nudist colony, basement of a frat house, college cafeteria at lunch time, country club, yacht club, casino, birthday party, almost every business and corporate function imaginable, bar, wedding, rock band opening,(I opened for Michael Bolton in front of 16,000 people) and the most challenging performance to date that I did was 10 state prisons in a row!   That’s right, prisons!

I was recently asked in an interview what I thought was my biggest accomplishment in my 25 years in show business and without a doubt I answered the prison tour.  It was the most powerful and scariest thing I have ever done as a performer. I remember all my Hollywood friends telling me how crazy I was and after the first gig I couldn't disagree with them more!  In those ten days I grew tenfold as a performer and speaker. I can honestly say that I will never be afraid of speaking or have stage fright again. As a performer, it was the test of a lifetime of pure survival. I was able to get through by relying on my experience and intestinal fortitude. Because of the experience I am a more experienced and well rounded performer and speaker. Following Jay’s advice enhanced my career considerably

You have to work consistently to get better at your craft regardless of your pursuit.   I think Tony Robbins said it best when he stated that repetition is the mother of skill. Who gets the ball when the games on the line….Michael Jordan, Eli Manning, Sidney Crosby. Why, because they have been there before and have succeeded by continually  practicing and honing their skills in many different situations. In business, when it’s on the line, don't you want to be the one who gets the ball?  Challenge yourself.  If Jay Leno can continue to go on the road and perform after getting the gig of a lifetime there has to be something to it. He continues to take himself out of the controlled atmosphere of the studio audience with applause signs.  To be an effective speaker you must heed this advice. In business you will have to speak to many audiences who may not agree with you and you will need to make an impact on them. Putting yourself in situations that make you uncomfortable will give you the experience not only to be able to confidently address the audience but also to be able to influence them as well.

So when the opportunity presents itself for me to provide advice to a speaker or performer, I always pass on Jay's word and also a bit of my own.  Try to work everywhere you can so you can experience every type of audience imaginable in every situation imaginable. That keeps you growing as performer and developing skills that will make you a stronger comedian or speaker. The next time your offered a gig or a speaking engagement think about it before you turn it down. Are you passing up something that may be the best experience of your career?   

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