David Lynch and Jay Leno: A Late-Night Love Story (Part 4)
Jaywalking with doppelgängers
It’s Halloween Night, 2001, and it’s a Wednesday. In Burbank, CA, it’s a mostly clear day with a high of 69°Fahrenheit, around 20° Celsius. As night falls, blue skies and golden sunshine give way to a beautiful Southern California chill, just cold enough for a light jacket or a Halloween costume. In 2001, the top costumes of the season were Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. September 11th was 50 days ago.
Perhaps it’s my own memory coloring my viewing of this clip, but there’s a certain somberness hanging in the mock Los Angeles skyline behind Jay Leno. It’s hard to be funny in the aftermath of a national tragedy — as I write this,
14 18 19 children and 1 2 teachers were murdered in their Uvalde, Texas elementary school. Bringing out an Oscar-nominated director for a movie plug (or writing about this same plug 20 years later) might seem out-of-place when the world is on fire. But what else can Jay Leno, David Lynch, and I do?
Jay Leno introduces his friend David Lynch to The Tonight Show for the fifth and final time. In Leno’s words, Lynch is the director of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and The Straight Story, his personal favorite which he encourages his viewers to rent immediately. Lynch’s latest, Mulholland Drive, was, however, confusing. “I didn't understand it, but I really liked it. I'll watch it again.” It’s not overwhelming praise, but Lynch has taken worse criticism in his then-34 years of making films.
Halloween might seem like a prime opportunity to talk to David Lynch given his propensity for psychological terror and the supernatural. Leno attempts to tie the two together off the bat in an awkward exchange that is worth reading verbatim:
JL: Are you a Halloween kind of guy?
DL: In Hollywood, we're kind of use to seeing strange creatures going around 24/7.
JL: Yes, that's what I mean. This is just kind of like casual Wednesday to us.
DL: Exactly right.
JL: I mean, do you hand out candy? Do you do that?
DL: I have done that.
JL: You have done it.
DL: I have done it, yeah.
JL: But you're not doing it this year?
DL: No. I'm here with you tonight.
JL: That's right, you are. Nice to have you here.
This back-and-forth almost sounds like dialogue from Mulholland Drive or Twin Peaks: The Return. What’s supposed to be polite small-talk is clouded by uncertainty and displacement. Leno, in show-business autopilot, has lost his sense of time and place. It’s the Halloween special and he doesn’t remember that it’s Halloween. He’s talking to a director about a film he doesn’t understand. What year is this?
Dear reader, it seems we have lost Jay Leno. A man is present behind the host’s desk, and he looks like Jay Leno, but he might be an alternate timeline Jay Leno. A multiverse Jay Leno. A doppelgänger from the Black Lodge. Or maybe he’s tired.
The theme of being lost dominates the first part of the conversation. The two are discussing the origin story of Mulholland Drive, perhaps the most acclaimed film in Lynch’s filmography and one that narrowly missed outright cancellation. Described by Lynch as “a love story in the city of dreams,” the film follows in the dreamlike path of woman with amnesia who is befriended by a hopeful young actress who is newly arrived in Los Angeles. As one can expect, this doesn’t remain a straight story — things that are assumed to be real become questionable, characters change identities and swap roles, and nightmares become manifest.
The film began its life as an “open-ended pilot,” a phrase Jay Leno has a lot of fun with, for ABC. When ABC bought and ultimately killed the project, Lynch and the French production company Canal+ spent a year negotiating for the rights to the story so they could eventually turn the pilot into a feature-length film.
“Maybe that's scary, because if you say it doesn't have a beginning or an end, in the middle is where...that could be frightening,” Leno says, sympathizing with the executives at ABC and perhaps describing his own liminal state between worlds. In show business terms, it’s a bad deal. In Halloween terms, it’s more trick than treat.
While the idea for the open-ended pilot was maybe too wishy-washy for the suits in corporate, the film that was made has what really matters: sex. “The movie has some very sexy scenes,” Leno salivates, referencing the lesbian sex scene between Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. “You liked those scenes, Jay,” Lynch jokes back to a very serious Leno who notes, like a restaurant patron giving his compliments to the chef, that the “two girls were terrific.”
This Jay Leno, whether the original or the doppelgänger, asserts itself over the remainder of the conversation. No longer lost, this is now a conversation about women, sex, and power. And it’s very cringey.
When Lynch dodges the inevitable request to explain his film, Leno can’t help but turn Lynch’s evasiveness into a Bill and Hillary Clinton joke, part of a rich tapestry of Bill Clinton jokes Jay Leno told every night in some form between 1993 and 2009.
From one abuse of power to another, we’re shown a clip from Mulholland Drive. In the clip, a film director is seated in the driver’s side of a 1941 Chevrolet Special De Luxe demonstrating the proper way to make-out with the female lead. It’s a scene about the power dynamics between director and actor and the open secret of abuses in the industry. This scene plays differently to a post-#MeToo audience than it does to Jay Leno in 2001 who finds it hot. He has a lot of questions for a cornered Lynch:
Leno: Now, is that how you direct? Have you ever directed a scene like that?
Lynch: This is one of the great things about directing.
Leno: So, have you done that? Is it a little bit autobiographical?
Lynch: With all the girls, it sometimes can happen.
Leno. It sometimes can happen.
Lynch: I wish, yeah.
While Lynch awkwardly backpedals his autobiographical admission, fans of Twin Peaks know exactly what he’s referring to. What you’re about to witness is a front three-quarters view of two adults sharing a tender moment:
It’s Season 2 Episode 19 and FBI Agent Gordon Cole, played by Lynch, expresses his fondness for Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick) with a kiss. The dialogue sounds like a director speaking to his actor as the final episodes of the then-final season wrap: “I'm about ready to leave Twin Peaks, and I don't know when I'm gonna return. But I want you to know that meeting you has been more than a privilege. It's touched my heart.”
There are obvious ethical issues with this that would not stand in 2022. A director shouldn’t be writing in love scenes for themselves with their actors.
It’s problematic at best, but in this instance the tender moment was a mutual one. In a 2007 Twin Peaks special feature, Mädchen Amick reveals to a visibly-embarrassed Lynch that this kiss scene was her fondest memory of filming Twin Peaks, a confession that prompts Kyle MacLachlan to wax poetic about the trust and kinship the actors felt toward their director. Lynch was taking them down strange and unexplored realms of the imagination which required their trust to execute. Without that foundation of trust, the series — and this scene — lacks substance.
Before we know it, Jay Leno is at a nude beach. Leno is curious to know about Lynch’s down time (he has none) and whether he goes on vacation (he doesn’t). He prefers working to lounging on the beach, a feeling Leno shares for different reasons. Leno recalls being recognized by a girl while flying a kite at a nude beach in 1973 and vowed never to return. RIP whoever that girl was.
With that image seared into your brain for all eternity, let’s get ready to say good night to Jay Leno. Lynch interjects with a request: he wants to say hello to his friend Judy. She’s just a friend, an open-ended one, who lives in America, and Lynch gives her a friendly on-camera wave.
We’re finally going to talk about Judy.
Fans of Twin Peaks will recognize this shout-out as well. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, FBI Agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) returns to the FBI’s Philadelphia office after a long and mysterious disappearance. The disheveled and shaken Jeffries begins by asserting that he will not talk about Judy. In fact, they’re not gonna talk about Judy at all. After a perplexing exchange with agents Gordon Cole, Dale Cooper, and Albert Rosenfield, Jeffries once again vanishes, never to be seen again…
…in this form. Jeffries reappears 27 years later in Twin Peaks: The Return as a steaming teapot-like machine who resides in an abandoned roadside motel in rural Montana. Both Dale Cooper and his evil doppelgänger seek out Jeffries for information about Judy.
Twin Peaks: The Return establishes that Judy is actually a bastardization of Jowday or Joudy, a figure from Sumerian mythology associated with negative energy. Jowday is being studied by the Blue Rose Task Force, a combined military and FBI effort comprised of Gordon Cole, Dale Cooper, Phillip Jeffries, and other experts in the fields of paranormal activity, unidentified flying objects, and Native American religion.
I will leave further revelations about Jowday to viewers of the 18-part limited event series, an exercise I highly recommend. It is David Lynch’s finest directorial effort to date and reveals much about the shared universe of his artistic output.
For now, back in 2001, Judy is Lynch’s American friend and she gets a warm hello. It’s also time for Lynch to say goodbye to Jay Leno.
Leno, after five encounters with Lynch, is steadily on the filmmaker’s wavelength. Assuming the responsibility of pitching Mulholland Drive to his audience, Leno says it’s an interesting movie for those who “like to figure things out,” an assessment that earns Leno a warm “bless your heart” from Lynch (a true Southerner would parse that compliment but I think Lynch meant it earnestly).
“It's not for dumb people. It's an interesting movie. And very, very sexy. You have some very sexy scenes in there.” With that, Jay Leno and David Lynch part ways, never to meet publicly again…
Never say never. In my typical obsessive fashion, we’re going to look at all of Jay Leno and David Lynch’s public appearances together. It’s 2012 in Beverley Hills and the David Lynch Foundation is honoring George Shapiro, the longtime manager and producer for Jerry Seinfeld who “treated Jay Leno very well” when he was an aspiring comic. Shapiro began his Transcendental Meditation practice in 1984 which puts him in great company alongside David Lynch (began 1973) and Jerry Seinfeld (began 1972).
Watching red carpet interviews from this event, it’s clear that Jay Leno does not practice meditation. In his words, he’s there to tell a few jokes and pay respect to Shapiro who was presented the Lifetime of Bliss award by the Foundation that night. A lauded philanthropist himself, Leno asserts that “David and [the Foundation] are the ones doing the real work” and he’s happy to spend an evening helping raise money for a good cause.
This sentiment holds up over time as Jay Leno would once again appear at a David Lynch Foundation event in 2017, this time in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the evil doppelgänger did not win out after all.
Can you believe it? It’s a Friday once again and we have completed our David Lynch/Jay Leno deep-dive. It was polarizing, but it had to be done. I hope some readers found the four articles as amusing to read as I did researching and writing them. If you really liked them, you can click the button below to relive the experience all over again with Part 1. Or, even better, you can subscribe to Adult Beginner for future material you may not find interesting but I certainly will. It is my hope that my enthusiasm for these subjects will rub off on you. Take a chance and subscribe for free today.