Read an Excerpt
Biologically speaking, I came late to the party. Which is to say, when I was born, my mother was forty-one and my dad was forty-two and my brother was already ten. I may not have gotten here on schedule, but at least I got here. This built-in generation gap probably defined me every bit as much as my distinctly peculiar blood mix. I'm a half-breed of the oddest sort: one part Scottish, one part Italian. The combination makes no sense. Because each side couldn't be more diametrically opposed. My mother, Catherine, was born in Scotland, and my father, Angelo, was a first-generation Italian-American. And I seem to be divided right down the middle. My Scottish side is practical, analytical, even a bit frugal. My Italian side is loud, outgoing, ready to laugh (and be laughed at).
Of course, my mother never really understood the Italian part of my behavior. When I was a boy, she would always scold me, "Now, there's a time to be serious--and a time to be funny!" But, in truth, there was never a time to be funny! We could be at Disneyland and my mother would say, "Not now!" I'd say, "Not now? Mom, when am I supposed to be funny? We're at Disneyland!" It was always time to be serious. She would later watch me do my standup comedy and make little notes. I'd ask her how she liked the show. And she would consult her notes, then actually say, "You know, no one wants to see someone be funny all the time." She'd say, "Why don't you tell some jokes, then maybe sing a little song or . . . do a little dance! Make it entertaining. Nobody wants to hear jokes all the time."
The most entertainingspectacle of my youth was watching both sides of my family try to interact. Each side obviously had totally different attitudes and approaches to life. At the Italian functions on my father's side, there would be hundreds of meatballs made for maybe a dozen people. More food than anyone could possibly eat. Huge pots, huge portions. And my mother's sister, Aunt Nettie, would be incensed by this. "Oooh, look at the food that's goin' to weeeeste!" she'd say in her thick burr. "Oooh, the weeeeste!" If there were more than two lights burning in any room, she'd scream, "I can't believe it! All these lights on! The weeeeste of electricity!"
Then we'd go to Aunt Nettie's house, which was run on the safer side of frugality. I remember how she kept Coca-Cola in the cupboard, because to refrigerate even one bottle would somehow quadruple the cost of the electricity. There was nothing like the sound of a warm Coke being opened--sort of a long wheezing ssssssssss--and then seeing it pour out all foam and no liquid. The foam, accompanied by a nice stale scone, made for a Scottish dream snack.
But my Aunt Nettie was a very lovely woman. She came to America just ahead of my mother, who followed at the age of fourteen and moved in with Nettie and her husband, Alex. Now, Uncle Alex was the classic Scotsman, by which I mean extremely thrifty. He liked keeping a close eye on his money. One time he fell down and lost consciousness for a few minutes. This was a big scare. My father was there and bent down to help. He shouted, "Give him some air!" Then he opened Alex's shirt and put his hand around the waist of his pants, trying to move him. At that moment, Alex snapped awake and started squeezing my dad's hand so hard that he almost broke it. He screamed, "You're not gettin' me wallet, Angus!" (My mom's family always called my dad Angus instead of Angelo; why, I don't know.) My father, of course, thought this was the funniest thing ever--that is, once he got some feeling back in his hand.
Later in my life, my mom tried to enforce the Scottish thriftiness upon me in the sneakiest ways. For instance, she never understood why an adult single man didn't save old french fry oil. Back at home, you could go down in the basement and find jars marked BACON FAT--1959. This, then, explained the mysterious appearance of the yellowy, grease-filled bottles I'd find in my cupboards during my parents' trips to see me in California. I'd say, "Mom, what am I gonna do with this stuff?" And she'd say, "Well, you never know when you might need it!" Like whenever I felt the overwhelming need to contract ptomaine poisoning!
I remember the first time they flew out here, she was just enthralled with the meal on the plane. She said, "Oh, the sandwich was so deee-licious, I asked the attendant to wrap up the other half for you." So she handed me this soggy napkin at the airport. I said, "Mom, I don't want an airline sandwich!" She said, "Well, just put it in the icebox, anyway!" The sandwich stayed there for about a year and a half.
On their visits, Mom always insisted on cooking all the time, which seemed like a ridiculous way to spend a vacation. To give her a break, I'd usually just bring home Chinese food. And even this had horrible repercussions. She refused to throw out the unused little packets of hot mustard and soy sauce. Never mind that I had bottles of mustard and soy sauce! I'd start dumping them and she'd scream, "You're not going to throw that away!" So I'd keep these stupid things. Then whenever they left, I'd have this big purge of the kitchen, going through the drawers and cookie jars and scooping up hundreds of little packages of condiments and plastic forks. Then I'd mail them back home to her. You never knew when she might need them.
I'll never forget one horrific night when they were staying with me: I came in late and they'd already gone to sleep. On the way home, I'd stopped off to gather the ingredients for the perfect hamburger, which I loved to put together for myself. I'd gotten the freshly ground, incredibly lean meat at the special butcher. I'd gone to the best bakery for the rolls. And I also bought a new bottle of Heinz ketchup, because I thought we were all out.
But once I got home, I opened the refrigerator and saw a half-bottle of ketchup. I didn't think twice about it. "Fine, I'll use that," I thought. I always prefer the chilled ketchup, anyway. So I made the hamburger, toasted the bun, put the burger on it. Now for the final touch on my perfect burger--ketchup. I tipped the bottle over it. Splash!!! It came like a gusher! Tomato water! I couldn't believe the devastation! It soaked the meat and disintegrated the bun, and I started yelling and screaming, like I'd been stabbed: "Aaaaaaaahhh! Aaaaahhhh!"
My mother came running down the stairs: "What's going on? A robbery?"
"No, Mom! What happened to the ketchup?"
She said, "Oh, it was a little low. You know, there was only a little ketchup left, so I just added a bit of water to make it last longer."
"You watered down my ketchup! You ruined my hamburger!" At this point, I pretended to start choking her--which she always thought was hysterical. "You ruined my hamburger!"
My father stumbled in and screamed, "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?"
"My hamburger! Your wife ruined my hamburger!"
Mom was still sputtering, "The ketchup--it was a little low . . ."
"But Ma! You save a dollar--while I spent twenty-two bucks to put this hamburger together! Now it's a puddle!"
I ate the burger, anyway. But, ooooooh, the weeeeeste!
Making my mother laugh was always a great source of pleasure to me. She was somewhat withdrawn, probably the effect of having had a horrible childhood back in Scotland--something I didn't learn until much later. Her parents divorced in an era when divorce was almost unknown. My understanding is that her mother ran off with another man--but this was never discussed much. That left her father with four children to care for, which was more than he could handle. Although it now sounds odd, in a Scottish house it was customary in those days to give away a child when there were too many of them. And that's what happened to my mom.
She told me a story about the time her dad brought her to a woman to see if the woman would temporarily take her in. This story is a wonderful example of how naive my mother was her whole life. Apparently, this woman lived at the seaport and, as my mom would tell it, "She was very nice to me, but I didn't want to stay. The funny thing was, this woman had lots of uncles and brothers who would come over every day! In fact, every day a different uncle or brother would come by and also bring me a gift."
The first time I heard this, I said, "Ma! I think that was a brothel! You lived in a brothel!"
"No!" she screamed. "It was nothing of the kind!"
"But you said it was by the docks?"
"And every day different men would come over?"
"And they would give you a little gift and introduce themselves as an uncle or brother?"
"Ohhhhhhhhhhh . . . Oh! Maybe you're right . . ." Leading with My Chin. Copyright © by Jay Leno. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.