Jay Leno’s Warm-Up Guy on ‘Irrelevant’ Conan O’Brien, Tim Allen’s Insecurity and More

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaelsIt’s great to be back on the beat at Michael’s today after a brief winter hiatus. (Oh how I hate February!) The joint was jumping today with the usual smattering of famous faces (Montel Williams, Donny Deutsch), media mavens and a few unidentified fashion types who swanned in around one o’clock and were drinking Cosmos. I have no idea who those well-dressed gals were, but their channeling of erstwhile stylista Carrie Bradshaw made me a touch nostalgic for the good old days. Remember them?

Steve-Komarow and Diane Clehane
Diane Clehane and Bob Perlow

As someone who was raised on a steady diet of television sitcoms and rarely missed a broadcast of The Tonight Show until motherhood made it absolutely impossible for me to stay awake after 11 p.m., I was really excited about today’s Lunch. PR maven extraordinaire Judy Twersky who, as the faithful readers of this column know, always delivers fascinating dates, invited me to join Bob Perlow for lunch. Who’s Bob Perlow, you ask? Only the most successful and prolific warm-up comedian in television history — he basically invented the genre — in addition to being a truly charming guy. Fresh off last night’s successful show (“My first New York show!”) in front of a VIP crowd at the Triad Theater and a slate of interviews with ABC and Premiere Radio, Bob was raring to go.

His book, The Warmup Guy, (Pelican) is out today and man oh man is it a page-turner. Eighties sitcom dad, Growing Pains’ Alan Thicke, one of Bob’s best pals, wrote the foreword. A tasty mix of memoir and Hollywood tell-all, I devoured it in one sitting. In it, he serves up lots the behind-the-scenes dish on what it was like to warm up audiences for a whole host of iconic TV sitcoms including Friends, Full House, Growing Pains, Newhart and my personal favorite, Who’s the Boss? To the uninitiated, a ‘warm-up’ comedian is the intrepid soul charged and paid (in Bob’s case he started out making $50 per show) to get the audience primed to watch a taping of a show which, with all the set up and retakes, can take three hours or more. Bob has been the front man for so many of television’s most beloved shows he’s a veritable encyclopedia of television trivia.

Name a star and he’s got a story. George Clooney? “I worked with him on E/R — not the one that made him a star — the other show he did with the same name. He was a really great guy from day one. He was such a practical joker and was always saying, ‘Let’s get a drink.’ He’s really a ‘what you see is what you get’ guy.”

On the other end of the spectrum, let’s just say Tim Allen isn’t on Bob’s holiday card list. Bob did three tapings in the early ’90s for Home Improvement before the series’ star interrupted the proceedings during Bob’s act to remind the audience just who they were there to see. “He yelled, ‘The show’s down here!’ gesturing to the part of the stage he was standing on.” The next day, Bob got word that Allen ‘wanted to go in another direction.’  “No one seems to be surprised when I tell them that story,” Bob told me between bites of his burger. “He’s a bad guy.”

I was most interested in hearing about Bob’s 13-year-run as Jay Leno‘s warm-up act during his tenure at The Tonight Show. “I never missed a day,” he said. The two met way back in the ’70s when they both answered a blind ad in a Boston paper asking: ‘Are You Funny?’ and went on to become roommates during their early days doing stand-up and have remained close friends ever since. “We went to a nude beach once when we were young. I was a child of the ’60s and took everything off,” said Bob smiling at the memory. “Jay kept his pants on. When I asked why he told me, ‘I’m going to be famous one day and I don’t want any [nude] pictures of me out there.’ He was so focused on his goal of making it. He never lost sight of what he wanted.”

Bob joined The Tonight Show in 1994 (the era of the infamous ‘Dancing Itos’) and was there for the pivotal moment that changed everything a year later. In one of the most memorable exchanges ever between a talk show host and guest, Leno opened his interview with Hugh Grant, who had been arrested on lewd conduct charges involving an encounter with prostitute Divine Brown, by asking the very uncomfortable-looking actor, “What the hell were you thinking?” The audience erupted in laughter and Grant, who managed to appear equally remorseful and bemused, was saved from the Hollywood dust bin thanks to Leno’s everyman approach to asking the right question in just the right way. It was the first time The Tonight Show beat David Letterman in the ratings. “It was a seminal moment for the show. Up until then, Letterman was killing him. It was a real turning point. Jay went from worst to first.”

Bob was equally candid in discussing the disastrous game of musical chairs between Jay and Conan O’Brien when the powers that be at NBC forced Jay to relinquish The Tonight Show before cutting their losses and giving it back to him — for a time. “That was a fiasco. Conan turned down the deal to go on after Jay from midnight until 12:30. ‘That’s not Johnny,’ he said. Well, he wasn’t Johnny. He got $44 million, but he’s irrelevant now.” Clearly still angry for the way his friend was mistreated he continued, “At one point it’s less about the money than about your place in history. Jay has his.” When I mention that Jay was very gracious in handing off the franchise to Jimmy Fallon, Bob added, “That’s the way it should have happened with Carson. Instead, Johnny did nothing.”

I couldn’t let Bob go before I got him to weigh-in on as many showbiz types as I could before the check came, so played a quick game of word association. He co-starred on the sitcom Working Stiffs with Jim Belushi (“A jerk”) and Michael Keaton (“A really good guy”). He was the warm up guy for the entire six year run of Newhart and reveres the beloved comedian. “He always came out to talk to the audience and always stuck around for pizza with the cast and crew after every tapping.”  His take on the cast of Friends: “None of them wanted to come out and engage with the audience before a taping except Matthew Perry. I didn’t know why until recently — he was drunk at the time.” On The Golden Girls cast: “Bea Arthur hated Rue McClanahan. Betty White stayed out of the fray.” So who’s the worst celebrity he’s ever worked with? “Besides Tim Allen? Chevy Chase and Roseanne[Barr].”

I loved his cautionary tale on the fickle finger of fame: David Naughton, who got his start as the song and dance man in those Dr. Pepper commercials in the eighties and gained fame as the star of American Werewolf in London, once chastised Bob for daring to introduce him to the studio audience at a Newhart taping–without asking — when the up and coming actor was there visiting a friend. “He demanded to know how dare I do that.” Naughton went on to star in the CBS sitcom My Sister Sam which Bob also worked on as the warm-up guy, but didn’t cross paths with the hot-headed actor. He did, however, meet him under very different circumstances around 2000 at a Hollywood party — where Naughton was tending bar. “I didn’t joke that I wanted to order a Dr. Pepper. It just goes to show you that working in the entertainment industry, you can never take your success for granted.”