By Roy Rivenburg
We are camped out in Jay Leno's den in the dead of night, listening to him test jokes for "The Tonight Show" and witnessing a rather alarming transformation. At first, he is merely barefoot. Then, as the hours wear on, he begins unbuttoning his shirt. Now, sprawled on the couch reading jokes, he unbuckles his belt and unhooks the top button of his jeans. And I'm thinking: "Is he just trying to get comfortable here or--dear Lord--does he do his best work in the nude?"
Fortunately, the other person in the room is Jim Brogan. As Leno's (fully clothed) alter ego part of Brogan's job is helping "The Tonight Show" host avoid displays of questionable taste. He's also the funniest guy you've probably never heard of.
Having spent years behind the scenes helping such comics as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry Miller sharpen material, Brogan is L.A.'s premier "joke scientist." His latest incarnation, in addition to his own stand-up career, is as Leno's comedy consultant--dissecting, analyzing, adding or subtracting ingredients and generally trying to make sure the lab doesn't explode.
"Jay calls me the vice president in charge of monologues," Brogan says. "I guess I'm just a heartbeat away from doing the actual monologue myself."
He is also among Hollywood's most baffling figures: He doesn't swear (even offstage), doesn't drink and has never inhaled. He earns a hefty, mid-six-figure income but drives a Toyota Tercel and takes dates to El Pollo Loco. And his roommate is a giant ventriloquist's dummy he built himself.
"He's the last decent man," Seinfeld says. "Well, the last decent man in comedy."
Around midnight, two wild deer wander onto Leno's lawn. Inside, attention shifts from a pile of staff-written jokes to a cassette tape made earlier in the evening at Hermosa Beach's Comedy & Magic Club, where, most Sundays, Leno and Brogan try out material for the coming week.
"Great to be here," Leno quips to the crowd. "Glad I signed that stupid contract nine years ago. Now I'm host of 'The Tonight Show' and trapped in this dump every Sunday night."
In truth, Leno considers the gig a good way to keep his show from being written entirely in a vacuum. He and Brogan perform solo stand-up routines, then Leno spends about 10 minutes reading potential monologue jokes from a stack of 3x5 cards. ("The big new movie this weekend was 'Seven Years in Tibet.' It's about Al Gore's fund-raising in a Buddhist temple.")
Now, at Leno's home, they review the tape, detecting nuances of audience reaction that untrained ears miss. A joke about Bill and Hillary's 22nd wedding anniversary ("That's a long time to be cheating on the same person") gets laughs, but Brogan notes an undercurrent: "You can hear the audience turn."
Another gag draws a roar, but Brogan says the laughs fade too quickly. Both jokes go into the reject bowl, a large ceramic dish on Leno's coffee table that is soon overflowing. "You start out with 300 jokes and try to get it down to 25," Leno says. Brogan compares it to panning for gold. It's a tedious and surprisingly humorless undertaking.
"Did it seem serious?" Leno asks the next day. "Well, obviously you can't be all ha-ha. If you shoot porno films, you can't sit there with a hard-on all day. But that doesn't mean you don't like sex."
Still, there's a difference between liking something and being addicted to it. Five nights a week, Leno and Brogan stay up past 1 a.m., hashing over the next day's monologue. Then Leno resumes the task around 9 a.m. at his cramped NBC office. Brogan drops in a few hours later to help, watches the show tape at 5 p.m., then skips out to a local comedy club for his own stand-up set before returning to Leno's house at 10 for the next go-around. The show's 17 staff writers (11 of whom work on monologues, the rest on sketches) grind out jokes in two shifts. As soon as the show starts taping, they begin faxing new material to Leno's home. It's virtually nonstop.
Asked what he and Brogan do together socially, Leno busts up laughing. "When you do this job, you don't have time for anything social. I haven't done anything socially for six years."
Some observers say that unrelenting pace hurts the show.
Brogan concedes that "Tonight" tries to do a lot: Leno's monologues are twice as long as Johnny Carson's and there are far more humor sketches. But the audience demands it. "People seem to stay tuned more for comedy than for guests, so that's why we've added more comedy," Brogan says. To critics who say Leno has lost the edge of his pre-"Tonight Show" stand-up routine, Brogan adds: "What we're trying to accomplish every night is an unbelievable task for a comic. Most comedians spend weeks honing new material in clubs. Jay is doing 10 minutes a night of brand new stuff."
Making it work is Brogan's specialty. A longtime student of comedy, his house is crammed with old joke books and records. And his office walls are floor-to-ceiling in videos from his days of booking comics on "The Tonight Show" (a part-time duty he dropped last June).
"He's like a joke scientist," says friend David Edmonds. "To me, something's either funny or not funny, but he can tell you why it's funny."
In other cases, Brogan fine-tunes bits for maximum comedy effect. In a joke about the Heaven's Gate suicide house going up for sale, the original version says the 9,000-square-foot home has seven bedrooms, a two-saucer garage and "sleeps 39 comfortably."
Brogan whittles away the seven bedrooms (it slows the setup) and the saucer garage (too weak, he says). Leno tacks on another writer's punch line ("Kevorkian called it his dream house") and the item is ready for the cue card room, a tiny outpost that is so filled with marker fumes that Brogan stands outside in the hall whenever he goes there to put the monologue jokes in order.
It all might sound easy, but plowing through hundreds of jokes a day can make the mind dizzy. Even if a punch line is funny, is it funny enough? Will the audience laugh loud and long?
Unexpectedly, I get drafted into the joke-picking process, becoming a sort of Jimmy Brogan Jr. Leno recites a gag, checks Brogan's reaction and then mine. In a few cases, he uses jokes that I like and Brogan doesn't.
Naturally, they bomb. At one point during the monologue, Brogan looks my way and mouths, "O for three." When the show breaks for commercials, Leno marches over and tells me, "You're in big trouble, pal."
Later, Brogan graciously consoles: "It's just guesswork."
One of the great pleasures--and frustrations--in interviewing comedians such as Brogan is that most questions are answered with a joke:
What did your father do for a living?
"He sold landing gear. Door to door. You should have seen his sample case."
Getting past the humor defense isn't easy. Sometimes, however, a stand-up routine reveals a lot--in a twisted sort of way:
"I moved here 17 years ago from Cleveland and I'm still trying to fit into the L.A. lifestye.
"So I joined a gang.
"I'm a member of the Crips now.
"I'm their accountant."
Peel away the layers and there is some truth to the gag. Although he may not be doing drive-by shootings, Brogan doesn't mesh well with his surroundings. If anything, he's the antithesis of Hollywood. In just about every category--from wardrobe to wheels--he is peculiarly immune to the trappings of glamour. His salary at NBC, for instance, tops $400,000 a year, but his frugality is legendary.
"If there's a 99-cent store in the neighborhood and a 98-cent store half a mile away, he will drive to the 98-cent store because of the obvious value and savings," Leno says.
And in car-obsessed Southern California, Brogan putts around in a schlumpy white Tercel. Not a Camry, not even a Corolla. "C'mon," chides comedian buddy Jim Edwards, "get yourself another two cylinders. You can afford at least six."
Brogan makes light of his car in his stand-up:
"I have a new hobby.
"I've been restoring cars.
"I just restored a '91 Tercel.
"I threw in about a hundred grand; it's like brand new."
Brogan's taste in fashion--jeans, Nikes and a striped white shirt--is equally unpretentious. "When we met in 1982 at the Comedy Store, he was wearing the same clothes you saw him in the other night," says Edwards. "And I'm not kidding."
Says Edmonds, a childhood friend who also roomed with Brogan at the University of Notre Dame: "Money does not affect him at all. I wouldn't be surprised if he's given most of it away. I also wouldn't be surprised if he had it stashed in a big bag under his bed." (Actually, Brogan has a business manager investing his funds, but says he has willed his estate to three alma maters: a Catholic grammar school, a Jesuit high school for boys and Notre Dame.)
Brogan's quasi-ascetic lifestyle is all the more intriguing when his childhood is factored into the equation.
"So I grew up in kind of a regular family. I have a brother named John and a brother named Thomas. Of course, my name is James. My mother named us after the apostles, which I think is kind of neat. Except my sister Judas isn't too happy about it."
Here, too, are some twisted grains of truth. His childhood household was deeply religious and was large (Brogan is the fourth of five children). But it wasn't exactly "regular." The family jetted around in private company planes, summered in Cape Cod and lived in a three-story Tudor mansion with 28 rooms, servants' quarters and a private dance floor.
"I was always kind of embarrassed by that," Brogan says now. "I wanted to be regular folk." He did hang onto the Catholicism, although he stopped attending church a few years ago because "it just didn't seem as meaningful as in college." And he did hang onto one tiny spark of the show business bug.
At 8, Brogan created the Sneaky Pete Magic Club, a one-kid show in which he lip-synced Frankie Avalon songs and told fortunes by peering into a "crystal ball" made from an upside-down pink fishbowl. But that was the only inkling of his future career. "He wasn't funny as a child," says his older sister, Anne Mullin, a decorator for such celebrities as radio shock jock Don Imus.
Rather, he was mostly quiet. "Actually, my whole family is shy," Brogan says. "I have brothers and sisters I've never met."
Today, after years of performing, he's still a bit of a loner. "Being onstage is a little unnatural. You're forced to be so social. I like to balance it with time by myself."
Brogan's flair for humor began taking shape in college, where he hosted a midnight campus radio show and wrote goofy articles for the school paper. He finished with a degree in sociology ("I had my sociology roommate fill out my schedule and he was too lazy to do two") and briefly considered a career as a high school counselor. He dabbled in grad school, got kicked out and spent two years chauffeuring antiwar politician Allard Lowenstein around New York. He also started attending comedy clubs, sneaking from table to table to avoid the two-drink minimums.
One night, he and a Chinese American friend, Larry Lee, went onstage at Folk City as the Brogan Brothers. The punch line was that Jimmy was the adopted one. But the crowd didn't laugh and "that was the last time we went up as the Brogan Brothers."
After reading a book by Dick Cavett, he decided he needed a stage persona. At the time, many New York comics based their routines on living in tough neighborhoods. Wafer-thin Brogan, who at 6-foot-2 looks a little like Ichabod Crane, decided on the opposite approach. He talked about going to an intellectual high school. He told jokes in Latin. Again he struck out with audiences, but he kept experimenting.
As he improved, Brogan started hanging out with a group of aspiring comics that included Seinfeld, Miller and Paul Reiser. "When you start out in comedy together," says Seinfeld, "it's like you're in the same foxhole."
Brogan was the first to seemingly hit it big. In 1979, he landed the starring role in "Out of the Blue," a sitcom about an angel who helps five orphans. "That's the only time we ever got him to drink alcohol," says comedian and friend Mark Schiff. "We got a bottle of champagne and Jimmy had one sip."
As it turned out, one sip was more than enough celebration. A few episodes into the season, "Out of the Blue" vanished right back into the blue. "I played an angel who comes down from heaven and gets canceled," Brogan said later. Part of the problem was the show's time slot, opposite "60 Minutes" on Sunday. "Nobody was watching," Brogan says. "Even I wasn't watching."
But reviewers spotted deeper flaws. " 'Out of the Blue' is out of something," wrote an L.A. Times critic. "Out of laughs, energy, credible writing and competent performing."
Brogan returned to stand-up full-time and, in 1984, again scored big with his first spot on "The Tonight Show." There is an apocryphal story told of Brogan taking his routine to Johnny Carson's producer, Freddy DeCordova. The conversation supposedly went like this:
DeCordova: "Let's hear your act."
Brogan: "Where you from?"
DeCordova: "No, no, do your act."
Brogan: "Where you from?"
In fact, that is Brogan's act. He roams the stage asking audience members where they live or work, then ad-libs jokes. His license plate sums it up perfectly: NO ACT.
"What kind of work do you do, sir?" he asked recently at the Laugh Factory, peering at the crowd through a haze of cigarette smoke and darkness.
"I'm an engineer," a man said, "but I'm on my own now."
"You're an engineer on your own?" Brogan replied. "So you have your own train?"
The exchanges don't always translate well into print, but they leave most crowds--and other comics--in stitches. His gentle style recalls the humor of Garrison Keillor or Jean Shepherd.
"In nightclubs, there's no one funnier," says Roy Teicher, a former writer for Carson and several sitcoms. "He is somewhat of a legend."
Actually, Brogan's act does include scripted jokes, but they almost seem an afterthought. "Even when he says he'll stick to his material, 30 seconds into the set he'll say, 'I'm from Cleveland, where are you from?' " says friend and comic Edwards. "It's his security blanket."
For that reason, much of his career has revolved around warming up studio audiences for shows like "Cheers," "Taxi" and "Newhart."
But there was an unexpected bonus. The constant ad-libbing, which required split-second decisions on what would make an audience laugh, gave Brogan a knack for weeding out lame jokes. He began developing a reputation for helping other comics polish their material.
After Seinfeld moved to L.A., he and Brogan used to go to Fairfax High School and jog the track while writing jokes. "The joke-writing was to take our minds off the running," Seinfeld says. When Seinfeld made his first "Tonight Show" appearance in 1981, Brogan prepped him. "We went over every line and every transition," Seinfeld says. "He's the best sounding board."
That might help explain why Leno tapped him for monologue duty when he began guest-hosting for Carson in 1987.
Brogan and Leno have a strange relationship. "we're complete opposites in just about everything," Leno says. "It's a bit like 'The Odd Couple.' But I think that's what makes it work."
For example, Leno lives in a lushly furnished Beverly Hills estate and collects all sorts of exotic cars. Brogan drives a scrawny Toyota and spent years in an apartment so tiny he kept his artificial Christmas tree up year-round for lack of storage space.
His new house in Laurel Canyon isn't much better. The living room floor is an obstacle course of antique radios, rotary phones and toasters, which he collects. Why are they on the floor? "Because of earthquakes," he says. "I haven't quite figured out a system for putting them up on shelves."
Aside from that, the only sign of other life is a hulking homemade ventriloquist's dummy built from instructions in a Paul Winchell book. Brogan proposed marriage once, in graduate school, but "we could never quite get it together, unfortunately." He's had some long-term relationships since, but friends and family suspect he'll never tie the knot. With good reason. When he finally decided to buy a house, he looked at, literally, 315 homes. "So you can imagine how hard it'll be to find a wife," he quips. "When they bring back the dowry, then I'll get married."
Other differences become apparent while hanging out with the two men. Leno is a bit loud, brash and drives with a lead foot; Brogan is low-key, cautious and the tortoise to Leno's hare. When Brogan drives up to the Comedy & Magic Club and climbs out to open a sliding gate that leads into a tiny parking lot, he gets back in the car and methodically rebuckles his seat belt--as if he could somehow get into a high-speed collision with 15 yards of maneuvering room.
As comic Kevin Rooney puts it: "A really crazy Jimmy Brogan story would be him going out to have dessert."
Indeed, he never even uses the word "damn."
"When I got to college, everybody was swearing," Brogan says. "I had never really heard it before. My parents didn't do it. I just thought, ecch." As it turns out, the no-cussing policy was a much better route commercially. "I could take my act straight to TV and it would be just as funny as it was in the clubs. Others have to clean up their jokes and it's not as funny."
Brogan is "the perfect canary in a coal mine for the 'Tonight Show,' " says Rooney, a friend of Leno's who quit stand-up to write sitcoms. Just as miners used canaries to detect noxious fumes, Leno relies on Brogan to sniff out offensive gags. "Jimmy is very sensitive to jokes that might be out of the mainstream," Rooney says. "If he winces, it doesn't go on the show."
Leno adds: "On television, it's easy to go from conservative to crazy, but once you're into crazy, you can't go anywhere else. I remember seeing Sam Kinison's last TV special and he did this hilarious bit on necrophilia. It was hysterical, but where do you go next?"
One of the edgiest jokes that came up during our visit to "The Tonight Show" concerned John Denver's plane crash: "Pierre Salinger says a Navy missile shot down John Denver." It was an automatic veto.
Sexual humor is also dicey. Some obviously gets by, but Brogan tries to steer the show clear of what usually turns out to be cheap laughs. As he and Leno reviewed newspaper clippings for Monday's goofy headlines segment, Brogan blanched at the proliferation of "penis references," such as a "Burns-Peters" wedding an-nouncement. Most were eventually discarded.
But Leno admits that he and Brogan spar routinely over matters of taste--and over jokes in general. "There's a bit of Lennon and McCartney going on there," says Rick Ludwin, a senior vice president at NBC.
In some ways, it's as if Brogan exists in a parallel universe. He lives in 1990s Los Angeles, but his mind and soul are somehow in another time and place, utterly unaffected by modern Hollywood sensibilities--and thus very much in tune with middle American tastes.
Says pal Edmonds: "He's not that much changed from 30 years ago, sitting on my sofa watching TV."
Some friends think Brogan is wasting his time at NBC. "I hope his career is headed in a more creative direction instead of just staying a sounding board for 'The Tonight Show,' " says Seinfeld. "I think he's more talented than that."
But Brogan says the gig doesn't interfere with other projects. He insisted on a schedule that would allow him to continue his own career. "To me, stand-up is my real job. TV work can go away at any minute." So in addition to working at nightclubs, he's been developing sitcom scripts and recently finished a screenplay--"I Was a Teenage Freshman"--with Edmonds, based on their first year at Notre Dame. True to form, it is devoid of sex, violence and car crashes. "Completely uncommercial," Edmonds says.
Brogan seems to have a universally accepted nurturing, nice-guy reputation, although his clout at "The Tonight Show" could be a factor. As one comic explains: "Certainly if I had something negative to say, I wouldn't. I'd be a fool."
Brogan, too, admits, "I'm sure people are friendlier to me than my personality warrants."
In many ways, working behind the scenes may be his strong suit. Although he's certainly talented onstage, it's hard to imagine him filling concert arenas. An old adage of comedy is that it's a young man's game. With Brogan closing in on 50, his best bet might be staying the course.
And that's exactly what he says he wants to do. Maybe even what he is destined to do.
Curiously, if you look up the word "leno" in the dictionary, it turns out to be a type of fabric in which "the warp yarns are paired and twisted." It seems an apt metaphor for Leno and Brogan's partnership. Unless you look up "brogan" and find out it's "a heavy work shoe fitting high on the ankle."
But the point is, the two are so intertwined that even if Brogan is home sick with a 104-degree fever, Leno calls to test jokes over the phone. "I think they were married in a former life," says comedian Edwards.
So what would happen if Brogan left altogether?
"Well, the one thing about these shows is they go on," Leno says. "If Jimmy had a stroke, we wouldn't go off the air. But I would probably go see him in the hospital and then I'd say, 'OK, one wink for a good joke and two winks for a bad.' "
clean comedian Jimmy Brogan, accept no substitutes