Leno courts new nighttime crowd

Late-night host aims bedtime book at younger audience

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

— Long before Jay Leno entertains the adults on "The Tonight Show," the comedian can put the kids to bed with his new storybook.

Leno has written a new picture book called "If Roast Beef Could Fly," based on a real family cookout from his childhood in which mischief led to a ruined rotisserie of meat.

"Simon & Schuster called me one day and said, 'Are you thinking of doing a children's book?' And I said, 'No!"' Leno told The Associated Press.

"They said, 'Well, you know, one of our guys has seen you a number of times ...' And there are certain stories I've told over the years that people seem to get a kick out of. And he said, 'How about some of those family stories, you ever think of doing one of those?"'

Leno decided the tale of his family's ruined roast beef might make for a few laughs. "I picked this one ... and everything sort of came together."

The book, with drawings of "little Jay" by artist S.B. Whitehead, goes on sale Tuesday. It comes with a CD of Leno reading the story aloud, doing the voices and whispering asides to kids as they read along.

In the story, readers see Leno's mother -- described as a thrifty, reserved matriarch -- and his over-enthusiastic father, whose big ideas are sometimes too big for reality.

"Everything with my dad was a 'project.' You know, my dad never fixed anything -- it was a 'project.' Men don't clean the kitchen, they sandblast it. My dad was one of those kinds of guys."

The story involves his father's efforts to build a new patio with a barbecue rotisserie -- while young Jay, complete with superhero's chin and black pompadour, follows along in awe.

photo

AP Photo

"The Tonight Show" host Jay Leno poses with a copy of his new children's book, "If Roast Beef Could Fly," in Burbank, Calif. The story is based on a family cookout from Leno's childhood in which mischief led to a ruined rotisserie of meat.

"I had a great family," he said. "A lot of comedians had screwed up families, but fortunately I wasn't one of them. ... I think I was well into my teens before I ever went home and there was nobody there. I'd come home at three, and my mom would have a snack ready. If for some reason she wasn't there, your aunt or your uncle (would be), or they'd send you to your cousin's house."

The story reaches its climax during a big family dinner:

"I was a little kid, and I was fascinated by the roast beef going around the spit," Leno said. "So I took out my little plastic comb and stuck it in the meat. At one point the comb caught on the string used to tie the roast beef. So I went, 'Uh oh,' and I didn't want to break the motor. So I said, 'OK,' and I walked away."

"When my dad brought the roast beef out, he started to cut it and then -- clunk! A big piece of plastic fell off and the meat was pink underneath," Leno said. "My dad started yelling in Italian, picked up the roast beef and threw it out the window."

In real life, Leno said, there was a happy ending.

"Everybody was stunned. Then everybody started laughing: 'What was that?' And my father would go, 'Oh come on ... grumble, grumble ...' He'd lose his temper, then it would go away right away."