America’s top ‘sitdown’ comic shares story at Gateway Theatre
Jay Leno had just one request: Please tell my favorite joke.
Central Virginia native Brett Leake wasn’t sure which joke the “Tonight Show” host was referring to, so he had to ask.
“You know, the one about college,” Leno said.
With the 1991 appearance, Leake became the first comedian with physical differences to appear on “The Tonight Show.” Leake, who will be performing at the WTA’s Gateway Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 4, made five guest appearances on “The Tonight Show” all told.
Leake, who has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, worked as a standup comic from 1983 to 1997, until he became, as he describes, a “sitdown standup comic” out of necessity.
The one-man show that he will be performing at the Gateway, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to ‘The Tonight Show,'” inspires audiences to aim high no matter what obstacles may seem to want to present themselves.
“Jokes begin with problems. Jokes are resolutions to the problems,” said Leake, whose first exposure to standup comedy came after he graduated from William and Mary in 1982 with a degree in economics.
The 1982 recession wasn’t the best time to be entering the job market with a degree in economics. Leake found an escape in a comedy club in Richmond where a young Leno was performing.
After taking in a couple of shows, Leake decided to give performing standup comedy a try at an open-mic night.
His first-ever set threatened to be his last.
“It didn’t go too well,” Leake said, but a woman who had attended the show encouraged him to keep at it, and despite his misgivings – “I told her, But I didn’t do that well, and she said, I know” – he did.
Leake threw himself full-bore into comedy, and in time earned himself paying gigs.
Fast forward to 1991, and Leake is on his way to Hollywood for a guest appearance on “The Tonight Show.”
Sitting with him in the green room: Leno, who was guest-hosting for Johnny Carson.
The “Tonight Show” gig, now and then, particularly, was a stamp of approval for a comedian. He had auditioned for the show previously but not gotten the invitation to appear, he said. In the meantime, he had done other standup-themed TV shows, including “Evening at the Improv” and “Comic Strip Live.” Friends of Leno happened to be in the audience for the “Comic Strip Live” taping, and passed word on to Leno that Leake had shown promise in the performance.
Leno then persuaded “Tonight Show” producers to book Leake the next time Leno was guest-hosting for Carson.
The night of the “Tonight Show” appearance, Leno offered some friendly advice.
“He said, I know you’ve probably had some tough times along the way, and some tough shows, but this isn’t going to be one of them. There are 500 people in the studio audience with 25 microphones. This is a choir for laughter,” Leake recalled.
Then Leno made the request.
“Oh, by the way, are you going to do my favorite joke of yours?” Leake remembers Leno asking.
The joke: “I’ve got a slight disability. A degree in economics. Don’t feel sorry for me. When I’m out of work, I can figure out why.”
For the slightest moment after delivering the punch line, Leake remembers silence.
“And then you hear one laugh,” Leake said. “The laugh is not from in front of me, from the 500 people, but from behind me at the desk.”
Leno talked about “The Tonight Show” set being a “choir for laughter.”
“If you know choir, the c, the note of the c, signals to the choir where the pitch is. I heard that note. It came from behind me. It was Jay Leno. And the audience laughed when he laughed. They knew it was OK to laugh,” Leake said.
Leake’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to ‘The Tonight Show'” is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 4, at 8 p.m.
The Gateway Theatre is located at 329 W. Main St., Downtown Waynesboro.
Ticket information: Click here.