We are backstage at “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, where in just a few weeks the Leno era will come to an end, for the second time.
Today is most likely the last appearance for comedian Kira Soltanovich, and her Phony Photo Booth hidden camera segment, her signature bit on the show. As her time here, and the show itself, comes to an end, it seemed like the right time to take stock of her “Tonight Show” journey.
“Did I ever tell you this story?” Kira asks me. “I saw Jay Leno at a furniture store in the Valley. And I didn’t say ‘Hi’ to him.” There’s a long pause. I’m waiting for the punchline, but I’m met with only silence. I finally ask, “That’s not the end of the story, is it?”
Kira laughs — she’s got a good laugh — “Nope, that’s it.” “That might be the worst story you’ve ever told,” I say. She insists that everybody walks up to him to say something, “Everybody.” The only difference, however, is that Kira actually knows Jay Leno.
She defends herself, “Here’s why I don’t do it. Because of Jay Leno’s famous story about running into someone a few years back and he goes, ‘Jay, I just want to let you know, I’m so excited about your success, and your show is great, and I just think you’re hilarious.’ And Jay said, ‘Well thanks so much, I appreciate it. What’s your name?’ And he goes, ‘Kevin.’ ‘Well thanks Kevin, I really appreciate that.’ And he goes, ‘Jay, Kevin, Kevin Costner.’ And after that, I will never, ever walk up to Jay, if it’s not on, well now it will never happen, but if it’s not on a TV set.”
After more than eight years of being introduced by Jay Leno, it certainly has never gone to her head. Kira actually discovered her sense of humor as a very young Russian immigrant while attending a Jewish school in San Francisco. While everyone else was praying, she rolled her eyes, and flailed and flopped her arms about in what sounds like an early homage to Steve Martin‘s Wild and Crazy Guy.
Comedy may have gotten her into trouble at a young age, but it inspired her throughout her life. It wasn’t until 1998, however, just weeks after moving to LA that she finally mustered the nerve to try an open mic. That was followed by years of gigs, honing her craft, before finally landing a gig as a regular on the hidden camera show “Girls Behaving Badly.” The show lasted two years, in which they shot four or five seasons. Just weeks after that job ended, the call came.
“One of the writers knew me. She was a comic still. She’s no longer at ‘The Tonight Show,’ but she called me and said, ‘Can you come do some hidden camera stuff? The head writer wants to meet you first, obviously.’ They didn’t have a script. It wasn’t like an audition. I just went in and told them, ‘Well here is what I would do with this piece.’ And he goes, ‘That sounds funny.’ And that was it. I mean, I showed him like a semi-robotic voice, and then he goes, ‘Okay great, let’s shoot next week.’ And that was it. I don’t think they even met with anybody else.”
“Was that a momentous moment?” I ask.
“Definitely. Oh, yeah, yeah. Just meeting the head writer of ‘The Tonight Show,’ Joe Medeiros, who later I became much better friends with. Walking into his office and sitting there with him, and him going ‘Okay, we’ll try you out.’ Leaving, going, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to be on ‘The Tonight Show.’ That was huge. That was huge.”
The first Phony Photo Booth was an instant success, and they started bring Kira back on a regular basis, month after month, and year after year, but like every comic, she had aspirations to do more, to perform her own standup, and be the comedic guest.
I ask, “What is the process for auditioning to appear as a standup comedian on ‘The Tonight Show?'”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’ll be honest, I know what I think the process is, but then you hear stories through the grapevine of what other comedians processes were, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s totally different from what I thought it was.’ So I don’t know. What I thought it was, was you showcased for the bookers, and if they like you they will either tell you, ‘Great, we love the set the way it is,’ or, ‘We really, really like you. Let’s tweak your set a little bit to fit what we would consider ‘Tonight Show’-friendly material, or what we think our audience would respond to,’ or they say, ‘We don’t think you’re a match for the show.’ Or they would just say, ‘No.’ They never said any of that to me. They just never … I don’t know what it was. Honestly I don’t. I can’t even speculate.”
There’s a long pause, the longest of our conversation. Kira becomes wistful, as though running her years on the show over in her head. Her usual quick speech, quick answers, slows. She’s perplexed. After so long with the show, she never had the chance, just once, to do the thing that is at the foundation of her talent: standup.
Kira’s standup has brought me to tears. She’s just funny. There’s no other way to say it. Her material is relatable, and matter-of-fact. She sees things in the world around her that most of us just don’t notice or think of as funny, but when she shines a light on it, it is suddenly a revelation. I’ve seen her in packed clubs, and sparse venues. On that stage, with a mic in her hand, standing in the spotlight, she just makes people laugh. That’s her job, and she does it well.
Kira breaks the silence, “And then I’d showcase for them and did well again. And they were just like, ‘Mmm.’ They never said, ‘No.’ Cause look, I, I … ” She’s struggling to find the words. To give an answer that would suffice, but there just isn’t anything really good to say about it. She pivots, and takes a different tact, answering an unasked question, “I’m not one of those comics that if I was a crappy comic I would just keep going. I’m one of those people that if I’m not getting laughs I would have quit comedy. So I know I did well. … Well enough for them to either say, ‘Hey, we liked your set, but can you give us something different? We’re not crazy about that material.’ Or whatever. Because that’s been said to a lot of comics. I would never take that personally. They just never said anything.”
I interject, “Or they could even just say, ‘Look, we think you’re really funny, you’re just not right for ‘The Tonight Show.'”
Kira replies, “They never even said that.”
Surprisingly, Kira didn’t actually audition for a standup spot on the show until 2009, the year NBC moved Jay to 10 p.m., for “The Jay Leno Show.” She was patient, biding her time, honing her craft, which I’m not so sure another comic would have done.
“I don’t think I was ready when I started the Photo Booth,” she says. “So I started submitting when ‘The Tonight Show’ became ‘The Jay Leno Show.’ It’s a whole new show. You know, Joe Medeiros was not asked to be the head writer so he left. Jack Coen became the head writer. Everyone was transitioning. Beth, who brought me in to do the Photo Booth, she was let go. A lot of transition. So I thought, all right, let’s transition. Here, let’s go. And I also felt I was more ready at that time. And so I submitted, and then I showcased again.
So I showcased in 2009, and then I showcased 2010. Then I would just send them sets, and I would just never hear.”
“Did you ever audition or showcase for ‘The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien?” I ask.
“No. I wasn’t allowed to. After that whole debacle, and Jay went back to ‘The Tonight Show’ … I didn’t showcase for Conan because I wanted my first standup to be on with Jay.
I felt obligated, like that was my home. Then the debacle happened, and then I wasn’t allowed, after that I wasn’t allowed to do Conan. And then Jimmy Kimmel and Jay got into it, so I wasn’t allowed to do Jimmy. And of course the long standing feud with Letterman, so I wasn’t allowed to do Letterman. So I was literally told I can’t do those other places, but yet they didn’t put me on.”
I need to make sure I have it right: “Someone specifically told you that you can’t do Conan, you can’t do Kimmel, and you can’t do Letterman?”
Kira is matter-of-fact, “Yeah. They told me in a very Hollywood way. You know? They didn’t come out and say, ‘You can’t,’ they just said, ‘That would really be frowned upon.’ I didn’t want to jeopardize what I had, so I just obeyed.
I ask, “The whole time that you’ve been on up through that you’re thinking, ‘I’m paying my dues, I’m putting in my time and eventually I’ll get my shot?'”
Kira’s response is so simple: “That’s what you hope for.”
“All your years of being with The Tonight Show,” I wonder, “has there ever been a glimmer of hope where it looks like you might get a chance to do you standup?”
“Now. Now that there are a few weeks left, it’s the only real, real glimmer that I’ve gotten.” They have told her, “If there’s a fall-out, we’ll call you.” A fall-out is when a guest cancels at the last minute. As it turns out, Matt Damon is one of the guests on Kira’s final show, and is recovering from a recent cycling accident. I’m sure Kira would do Matt the honor of covering for him, if he wants to sit this one out and get some rest.
The great thing is, “The Tonight Show” goes on, and who knows what will happen in the new Jimmy Fallon era. I ask if she’ll audition for Fallon. “Absolutely. I could, I will definitely. I think that the Jimmy Fallon audience would be wonderful. I think they would hopefully appreciate my standup. It would just be nice to do it in a place that I have called home.”
For her final appearance, the show has prepared a best of Phony Photo Booth. Jay introduces her, and she comes out to the roar of the crowd, taking her place next to him.
They banter briefly, sticking to the script, before the playback starts. The audience loves it. They genuinely laugh, as Jay and Kira stand on the dimmed stage together, watching.
After the show, Jay and Matt Damon shoot a promo for tonight’s episode, and in between takes, Matt Damon turns to Jay and says, “That Photo Booth bit was great. That was funny.” Never hurts when Matt Damon likes what you do.
Finally, I ask if Kira has any final thoughts for Jay. “If I see Jay out and about at a furniture store in the Valley. If I say, ‘Hi’ to you, just at least pretend like you remember me,” and with that she laughs that great laugh.