I remember very well the first time I met Jay Leggett, who recently died, suddenly and tragically.
My agent had set up an audition for a new show - a partly improvised theatre piece that was to be staged in a custom built venue in the bowels of London's Cafe Royal. They wanted a performer to play the part of a disgraced circus artiste from the fictional island of Moschimpia, who was working as a waiter in the equally fictional restaurant venue in which the play would take place. I never liked auditions, and usually left them feeling worse about myself that I had when I'd walked in, but my agent had got me the appointment, so off I went.
It was, as they always are, a nervous and stilted affair, and there was the usual panel of slightly disinterested people sat behind a table glancing over their glasses at you. Except for one difference. Right in the centre, wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt, and grinning at me excitedly, was the big guy. "Says here you do tricks with restaurant stuff, wanna show me?", said the big guy.
I did my stuff, some appropriate tricks, threw in a few gags, and at one point, as I hit a trick, the big guy jumped to his feet like an excited hunting dog and yelled "No fuckin' way! Dude!", and high fived me. That's how I first met Jay. High fives didn't usually happen in auditions. I had a good idea then, that I might be in with a shot.
I was a part of "Joey & Gina's Wedding" for about a year, and the first few months of that were rehearsals. I put together a cabaret spot for the show, we learned lots of group songs & dances, and obviously, the script, but mainly we learned improv. The show had a narrative, but the performers spent most of the evening mixing with the audience, in character. With three and a half hours of improvising every night, we had to be at the top of our game, and luckily Jay Leggett was was the best teacher we could have had.
I was, at that point, not much more than a glorified street performer, and I was full of the piss and vinegar that street performers often have. I knew best. Nobody could teach me anything. Boy was I wrong. Jay studied with the legendary Del Close - the father of American improvised comedy - and in those few months he took us through comedy boot camp. It was like having Mozart as your high school music teacher, and I still use the the tools, tricks and methods Jay taught me pretty much whenever I step on stage. He took the raw materials that I had, gently smacked the arrogance out of me, gave me some discipline, inspired the shit out of me and showed me how to grow. And along the way, we became friends. And holy crapbags he was funny.
The show closed after a year, Jay went back to LA, and I went back to the street, but we kept in touch.
A couple of years later, me and my wife were at one of those crossroads-y points in our lives. We felt a bit directionless and lost, and the idea of going to visit Jay was suggested. We worked out that we had almost exactly enough in our bank accounts to get us to LA and back, with pretty much nothing left over for whatever happened after we got back. It was a ridiculous and foolhardy thing to do, so we went to a greasy spoon in Waterloo to think it over and try to talk ourselves out of it. Halfway through our eggs on toast, we both happened to glance up at the TV that hung on the wall of the cafe and our mouths dropped open. There, on the TV, was Jay grinning down at us. A guest part in a children's TV show. That, kids, is what you call a sign.
Jay told us to come, so we came. By the time we arrived, he was in fine spirits, having just sold a script, so it was time to kick back and spend a few days having some fun. And boy howdy did we. He showed us the sights, took us to the cool Hollywood places to eat and drink, we saw Spiderman on the opening weekend, went to late night punk gigs on the strip, came home a little drunk and watched Saturday Night Live with his cats in his apartment.. It was just about perfect, and think he got a big old kick out of playing the tour guide and showing us around his adopted home town. We stayed in his apartment. Ever the gentleman, he gave us his bed and slept on his own sofa. Shit, he even specifically bought English muffins for us to have for breakfast and was broken hearted when we told him that they're not really an English tradition at all.. And every morning we'd walk outside and see the hummingbirds that fed from the flowers in his building's atrium. Like I said, just about perfect.
Towards the end of our stay he drove us to Vegas for a night. He'd made mix CDs for our journey, but the car CD player wasn't working, so we stopped at the Wall-mart in Barstow and bought a new one. And I bought twinkies, because America. And I sat in his car listening to his favourite tunes, eating twinkies for the first time, and driving through a desert for the first time, until the glow over the horizon told us we were near, and then, as Jay giggled and struggled to find just the right track for our arrival, we're suddenly driving through the neon-lit Vegas strip while the insane warblings of Mrs.Miller blasts out of our new CD player, and we're all staring, shiny-eyed out of the windows, grinning like children.
This was what made Jay so special. He was the best part of America. He was the adventure part, the part that cares about what will make people happy, moved, or even complete. A kid from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, who had followed his dream to La-la-land, and made it work, he understood the importance of following, as he always used to put it, your bliss. This made him a fine man, a brilliant director and a beautiful friend.
I saw him one more time after that crazy trip. Last year I had a gig in New Zealand, and my flight home had a brief stopover in LA. I emailed him to see if he wanted to meet for a coffee. Of course he did. He came barrelling through the doors of the airport cafe all big bear hugs and "Man! How you BEEN?" and we picked up as if we'd seen each other yesterday, and as if we'd see each other tomorrow.
Which I always thought I would. He was one of those people, so inspirational, so genuine, that he seemed, perhaps, invulnerable. A constant. He was so great when he was around, that it was too easy to think that he always would be. One of those people that always, in the back of your head, you were thinking about hooking up with again.
He leaves a stunning legacy. Groups of people in every city he worked in, who were enthused by his passion and wit, and educated by his immense craft and knowledge. People who loved him very, very much.
He used to sign every email with the same two words, so I'll do the same.