The year was 1989 and I had recently taken the job of Exec Art Director at a Chicago office of Young & Rubicam in the western suburbs. Clients were arriving for meetings the following day and we were busy preparing our presentation.
Later in the evening we were meeting the clients in Chicago to attend an advertising awards event. It was a Chicago only awards competition sponsored by Advertising Age, the top trade publication. At the last minute our clients phoned in to say they would not be arriving in time to attend the event so our GM decided to invite a group of four employees from our creative department, genuine knuckleheads all, to fill the client's seats.
What began as what could have been a boring evening of a well behaved and posturing group of business professionals suddenly became an unexpected party night that would exceed my wildest expectations.
The Addy Award event was being held in the grand ballroom of the historic Conrad Hilton Hotel on South Michigan Ave. We drove downtown in three autos in advance of the start time to stop in a tavern for some pre-show lubrication.
I, along with the original attendees, were wearing suits as was appropriate for client entertainment but the four other invitees who worked for me needed ties and jackets which they happened to have hanging in their offices on top of their jeans and sneakers. After a few cocktails we walked over to the Hilton to grab an early seat.
We were already in top jackass form making stupid references and laughing at much that wasn't funny so Greg, our GM and a close friend of mine that hired me, decided we were to sit in the far end of the ballroom at the last table so this group of knuckleheads would not embarrass the company as much as if we were sitting in the front.
We sat at the last table in the rear and the lubrication continued. The room was filling up with the top ad execs and clients in Chicago, some of whom we had worked with in the past and knew well. This was a formal event but ad people will never be as formal as the attire. One trip to the mens room revealed two of the city's top creative directors sharing a vial of white powder and the smell of hemp lingered from a previous visitor. Hey, this was the 80's so what would one expect?
The dinner was the typical hotel fare of rubber chicken and iridescent roast beef they usually prepare for a few hundred guests. We were flinging peas with spoons at each other at our table. After the plates were removed and we calmed down a bit a voice from behind asked, "hey guys, whatsamatta don't you like the Doritos?" That voice was the unmistakable. As we turned around it was Jay Leno.
Jay was appearing at the ceremony to host and hand out awards. At the time he was the spokesman for Doritos with a few flights of ads that ran on television for a number of years.
Small bags of Doritos were placed in a pile on the center of the table but we had not bothered to eat any since the hot appetizers were more appealing.
Jay came out of the back door as he prepared to walk through the crowd to the podium. He grabbed a chair nearby and sat down with us but not before he grabbed a large box of Doritos and dumped some more on our table, opened a bag and stuffed some in his mouth. We were in awe. Later that box would serve as a prop.
For the next ten minutes or so he chatted with us and was more interested in us than himself. He asked where we worked, what we did, where we lived and cracked jokes about Chicago and whatever else came up. I don't recall most of the conversation but there was no doubt Jay was one genuine class act. Nothing "celebrity" about Mr. Leno, he was just one of us guys for about ten minutes that one night. We were all about the same age too.
Those at nearby tables didn't even notice Jay Leno sitting with us until the big spotlight from the stage shined on our table. It was then that Jay stood up, grabbed his big box of Doritos, waved to the crowd and made his way to the podium to start the show. As he did he shook hands and passed out more bags of the product he was marketing as an unashamed salesman to the core. He knew his audience well by being obviously loyal to his sponsor. The show went on and Jay did his schtick from the stage.
I was inspired to add this story to the blog because last night Dave performed his last Late Show. I didn't watch it because over time Dave lost his edge and made me angry instead of getting me to laugh. The battle between Jay and Dave for late hour variety programs is well known. I liked both Jay and Dave a lot. Dave's humor was a different style of schtick than Jay. Dave was good with stunts, Jay was best as a stand-up comic.
Dave could have had a long time fan in me simply because of his Hoosier background. Even that wasn't enough. I have witnessed Dave in person from a close distance at the Indianapolis 500. He is a partner in Rahal Letterman Racing and hangs at the track on Memorial Day weekends. Fans would try and get Dave's attention and called out Dave's name as he wandered the pits and Gasoline Alley. But no, the arrogant and obnoxious Dave ignored them denying them an autograph or even a wave. Maybe he did when I wasn't around but that is what I witnessed. No doubt Jay would have worked that crowd well and made a lot of fans happy.
Over time Dave did less stunts and became an angry, bitter old liberal dick (how many times can I repeat myself?) with a political ax to grind. Why he chose that path I just don't know. Dave carefully selected the victims of his barbs while Jay equally distributed his sarcastic humor to all.
Jay stayed funny, Dave became angry and it showed in the head to head ratings. Maybe that's why Dave became such an ass. I stopped watching all late night television a few years ago because getting some sleep appeals to me more than watching highly partisan political humor that pissed me off before going to bed.
I forgot about Dave a long time ago but I will never forget Jay Leno. Was it because he shared some time with us? Maybe, but most of all because Jay is proof that a genuine funny guy can be likable, funny and stay relevant all at the same time. Jay went out on top and could have stayed on much longer but seemed to know it was time to hand The Tonight Show off to another.
Not so for Dave, to whom I say good riddance.