Jay Jennings, SI's College Basketball reporter, is accustomed to the sounds of rim shots. Sometimes they're errant jumpers clanking off the iron in the arenas Jennings frequents on assignment, and sometimes they're made by the drummer punctuating the jokes Jennings delivers as a part-time stand-up comic at clubs in New York City. "Comedy is my life," he says, "after my girlfriend, my family, my job and various other things."
It is said that comedy is born of hardship, and Jennings, 30, has had his share. For the first dozen years of his life, in Little Rock, Ark., he was called by his given name, Earp, a common moniker in his family but the source of much derision from the playground bullies of Jennings's youth. The summer before he was to enter sixth grade in a new school, little Earp decided a change was in order, and his mother pulled the name Jay more or less out of the air.
As a senior wide receiver at Little Rock Catholic High, Jennings made a leaping touchdown catch with no time remaining to pull out a 29-28 victory over McClellan High. The Arkansas Gazette described the big play as a "mission of mercy." But Jennings shows no mercy to visitors to his Manhattan apartment, where a tape of The Catch seems to be perpetually at the ready in the VCR.
After graduating from Vanderbilt and getting a master's degree in English from the University of Chicago, Jennings taught at a high school in Dallas for three years. Then it was back to Arkansas, where he drove a delivery van for an office supply store and wrote movie reviews—a task he still performs—for Spectrum, an alternative newspaper published in Little Rock. He also polished his comedy act in community theater. When he heard that the pay-cable network Showtime was conducting a Funniest Person in America competition, with preliminary laugh-offs all over the country, he entered. There were some 50 contestants in Arkansas, and Jennings was one of the 10 finalists.
Encouraged that he was now officially one of the funniest people in his home state, Jennings moved to New York City on New Year's Day 1986 to pursue his dual interest in comedy and writing. He bombed in his first New York stand-up appearance, but audiences have since become considerably more receptive. "Jay's humor is observational and cerebral," says fellow SI reporter Stefanie Scheer. "He's a combination of Bertrand Russell and Nipsey Russell."
Jennings came to SI in June 1987 and, predictably, has now incorporated several magazine jokes into his act. "I'm a little embarrassed," he tells audiences. "Thirty years old and I just bought my first Playboy magazine. It was a little disappointing, though. It was their swimsuit issue."