Jay Leno has been making humor out of headlines and everyday life since he was a kid. Even after his last night as the host of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a job he held for more than two decades, Leno plans to continue to perform in comedy venues across the country. He’s no stranger to hard work and dedication to his craft and his passions. That hard work, mixed in with perseverance, humor, and a positive attitude, is the recipe for his success in show business and in overcoming his dyslexia.
While some students would say they struggled in school as though it were a hardship, Jay never minded working harder. “Everybody has something,” he says. “My mother would always say to me, ‘You’re just going to have to work a little harder than the other kids to get exactly the same thing.’ And that’s an approach that I’ve always used in my life. I’m a great believer in low self-esteem. So consequently, if you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room and you think you’re going to have to work a little harder, and put a little more time into it, to get what everybody else does, you can actually do quite well. And that’s been my approach.”
“If you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room and you think you’re going to have to work a little harder, and put a little more time into it, to get what everybody else does, you can actually do quite well.”
Jay Leno grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, with a stern but dedicated mother who emigrated from Scotland at a young age, and a father, a loud Italian with an equally boisterous large family. His mother, who had very little in the way of a formal education, helped him with his schoolwork. “My mom was a smart lady, but certainly not a well-educated lady, so she put a lot of effort into education,” he says. “But when you’re dyslexic and your mother has a Scottish accent and she’s trying to teach you fourth-grade French, there’s nothing funnier. It would come out sounding nothing like French. Speaking French with a Scottish accent—it’s hilarious.”
His father’s large family provided plenty of opportunities to work the crowd and to glean potential fodder for his future. However, in his early years, Jay wasn’t thinking about being a comedian; he just wanted to hang out with the adults. He credits his supportive teachers for planting the seed for his future. “I had wonderful teachers. I would not be in show business without them. I remember Mrs. Hawke, my English teacher, who said to me, ‘You know, you’re always telling jokes in the hall, why don’t you write some of those stories down and maybe you can tell them to the class?’ It would have never occurred to me to do that, because that just seemed like homework. And for the first time in my life, homework was actually enjoyable. I’d write something down, and then cross it out, saying now that doesn’t sound right, and then write it again. And then she’d have me stand up in front of the class and have me read these stories and I realize now that they weren’t very good, but at the time I got a few laughs and she said, ‘Maybe you could be a comedy writer or something like that.’ It was an eye-opener. It was something I’ve always been grateful for.”
Jay attended Emerson College, and began traveling from Boston to New York City for auditions. If he hadn’t already learned the art—and the benefits—of perseverance, he learned the lesson during these trips. “I remember when I would go to the comedy clubs to audition and there’d be this huge line at the Improv to try out—singers, dancers, and comedians—and I remember getting there once at 11 o’clock in the morning and there was already a line for auditions that started at 8 o’clock at night, and there were 60 people in front of me. And it would be around an hour after I got in line that someone would say, ‘Screw this,’ and leave. And I’d go, ‘Oh, good’ and move up. I got in because I just stayed there. I focused on that. I’d wait for the other people to get tired, get hungry, to have to go to the bathroom, to have to go somewhere, and they would drop out, and I would move up, and that always worked. To this day, it still does. You just hang in there.