Playing in Traffic with Jay Leno
Sometimes you have to take risks to get the rewards. I have a friend whose mantra is “If you want to get hit, go play in traffic.” So when the economic recession swooped down upon us, my husband and I went and played in traffic. And you know what? We got hit.
As professional jugglers who live in the middle of nowhere, hard times can be even harder than normal, if possible. With no performing employment, we instead focused on creating new show material for a time when work would ultimately return. We came up with a non-juggling musical piece that actually doubled as a way to work out our pent-up frustrations. We’d bang out the William Tell Overture on each other’s heads with plastic tubes.
We passed footage of the piece onto some fellow variety artists, merely to show them how we were passing our idle time. When they suggested we submit it to The Tonight Show, we scoffed. Later in the night my husband figured, Why not?
Really, why not? We had nothing to lose. Our dignity dissolved the second we began whacking each other squarely on the noggin. Besides, my husband was raised with the theory, Someone has to make it. Why shouldn’t it be you? I will always love my husband’s family for that alone.
So we played in traffic. We submitted the tape (yes, a VHS tape) on a Thursday and they called us the following Tuesday. My husband was completely unprepared. When he realized it was The Tonight Show calling, he fumbled to mute The Tony Danza Show (he claims he wasn’t really watching) and located a crayon and pink construction paper to write down the pertinent information. The Tonight Show calls, the Mecca of all mother-loads for variety performers, and we record the message in Burnt Sienna Crayola Crayons.
I immediately started sharing the news. “The Tonight Show called!” I told my mother. ”Why?” she countered bluntly, obviously bewildered. My parents were convinced the whole thing would fall through. They didn’t want to get their hopes up. Besides, they told me, they preferred Letterman. They refused to share the news with anyone. To me, even if our spot was canceled, The Tonight Show called. We had caught their eye. It was my smidge of hope during an otherwise bleak time.
There was a month between the initial phone call and the taping of the show so our upcoming appearance was covered by local newspapers, radio and television broadcasts. One day we treated my parents to lunch at a local greasy spoon and we were recognized. ”Youse are the guys who are gonna be on TV!” exclaimed the waitress. ”She knows you?” my mother marveled. Leno fever finally hit my parents.
For the show, we were flown to California, transported in a limo, put up in a nice hotel, and had the time of our lives. We had plenty of time to practice on the set and we were treated to lunch at the NBC commissary. I know Jay Leno has taken lots of flack for the Conan debacle, but I will always remember him as a most gracious host. Though we were mere peons on the show, he came to our dressing room, unannounced and unaccompanied, to introduce himself and welcome us. You had us at hello, Jay.
The audience that night was composed entirely of military members and they were primed for a good time. The Pussycat Dolls were brought in, too — a highlight for my husband. I like to remind him that he had absolutely no interaction with them, although they were outside our limo when we pulled into the NBC lot. He thinks they were waiting for him.
We appeared on a segment called Does this impress Ed Asner? A teenager with musical armpits, a Canadian government worker who juggled machetes, and my husband and I were the featured acts. After watching us use each other’s heads as bongos to play The Lone Ranger theme song, Mr. Asner said (and I quote), I am VERY impressed! He didn’t recognize us behind the set two minutes later, but in that moment in time, Ed Asner was impressed.
We went home on a high, convinced our new Tonight Show credit would earn us the respect and recognition comedic jugglers so richly deserve. We waited for the work calls to come in and by gosh, they did. First we were invited to perform at a 3-year-old’s birthday party followed by a request for a free show. Moreover, my 97-year-old grandmother questioned why we weren’t on the show longer and how come Jay Leno didn’t offer us a job. There’s no way fame would to go to our heads.
Regardless, it was an experience we wouldn’t change for the world. The adventure sparked our creativity and renewed our confidence, breathing new life into us and our show. By playing in traffic, we managed to rise above the despair which could have easily swallowed us whole. Whenever we question whether or not to go out on a limb or take a risk on something we dream about, we think about our Tonight Show experience.
Send the tape. Play in traffic. Either way, take that chance. Remember, someone has to make it. So why shouldn’t it be you?