Local guy has a gig with the giggles
- Pete Schulberg
- Portland Tribune - Features
When I grow up, I want Bill McDonald's gig. Better yet, I want the part of his brain that churns out jokes quicker than a '24' episode on fast forward. Making other people funny is a special talent Ñ one that McDonald has refined to a livelihood.
From his Southeast Portland home, McDonald writes jokes for 'Tonight Show' host Jay Leno and for about 140 radio stations around the world that feed McDonald's topical humor to their on-air staffs.
'I've probably written a total of 120,000 jokes, but it's easy for me,' explains McDonald, 50. 'I don't have to translate my thoughts into jokes. My thoughts are jokes. The only tough part was learning to type.'
McDonald's daily grab bag of zingers bring laughter to audiences as far away as Kenya, Turkey and Australia. And let's not forget the NBC studios in Burbank, Calif. Ñ site of TV's most popular late-night program.
'It's a quirky gift, and I'm grateful for it,' McDonald says. 'One station I write for is in Sri Lanka. If I can bring a smile to people over there this week, it's all been worth it.'
Some of McDonald's recent gems submitted to Leno:
'I'm a little suspicious of these electronic voting machines. They even showed President Bush ahead in Fallujah.'
'Ricky Williams was asked if he preferred playing on grass or AstroTurf, and he replied, 'I don't know. I never smoked AstroTurf.' '
'It's so cold in L.A., I was out driving on the freeway and I got cut off by a herd of caribou.'
'President Bush had a plan all along to get crooked CEOs out of corporate boardrooms. But the problem was he could only choose one vice president.'
Leno passed on the two Bush jibes. But hey, they were funny enough to make the cut for this column.
'I submit around 1,700 a year,' McDonald says. 'Last year, he used 84, but I learned how to handle this level of rejection from my personal life.'
Only once in a while will he test a joke on his wife, Mary, because, he says, they're on different humor wavelengths.
'My favorite jokes go out from my basement in Portland to countries around the world,' he says. 'Then (the jokes that are used by Leno) are in newspapers and radio stations all over. Finally, at the end of the week, they're reprinted in the Sunday Oregonian back in Portland. It's like watching a salmon return home to spawn and die.'
McDonald began hawking jokes to Leno in 1993 after seeing the 'Tonight Show' host on 'Larry King Live.' One of the callers was from Portland and mentioned he had sold Leno some jokes.
A light bulb went off, which naturally was in the form of a joke in McDonald's head.
'I sent one in and was given an independent contract,' says McDonald, who e-mails seven jokes to Leno's staff each morning. 'Jay called me on my last birthday, which was embarrassing. My sister put him up to it.'
McDonald's goal is to reach 500 jokes on 'The Tonight Show.' Right now, he says his total stands at 428.
The professional jokester also co-hosts a local cable access show called 'Born to Slack' and performs with a local musical group, the Lighter Notes. McDonald's humor columns have run in this very newspaper. And between jokes, he's also banged out six movie scripts. None of them has been picked up, however.
'My scripts have been rejected by some of the smartest people in Hollywood,' McDonald notes.
McDonald, who moved to Portland in 1975 to perform in a band, was born and raised in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where his father worked for an oil company. 'There was one mean kid down the block named Osama, but other than that it was great,' he says.
And the jokes just keeping on comin'. This is one guy who wouldn't have it any other way.
And now this É
Oregon Public Broadcasting (10) previews the 73rd regular session of the Oregon Legislature with a half-hour special at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Among the topics: issues underlying the school funding debate and the budget shortfall.