I was living in the suburbs outside New York City, going to school and hanging with some older neighborhood kids. They were maybe 11 or 12, a rough-around-the-edges bunch, the sort of boys who stole packs of gum. One day, while we were milling around the local playground, one of these kids pulled out some photographs that were rumored to be pornography. As everyone crowded around to get an eyeful of the woman's body part (the photo quality was so low, I don't think they ever found out what they were actually looking at), I noticed that one kid was fooling around with a little pocket knife, spinning it in his hands.
Trust me, I was no Goody Two-shoes. I was a horrible student, dyslexic and prone to pulling pranks. But as the group bunched together, standing on their tiptoes to get a peek, I stepped back. There really wasn't much going on—just some curious kids and one boy with a pocket knife—but suddenly I could see the path we were starting to take and where it might lead us years down the road. I remember thinking, This can only be trouble. And I turned and walked away.
Why did I walk away? Was it because my mom was such a great one for pointing out the consequences of one's actions? (Until the day she died, she'd ask, "Jay, what if the president's family is watching when you do a joke about him? How do you think they'd feel?") I really can't say. All I know is that from then on, every decision I made was based in part on that one.
If my college friends and I had been drinking beer and they wanted to drive somewhere, I wouldn't. It's not as if they ran into a school bus full of nuns and incinerated them; they just drove home tipsy and went to bed. But I chose not to. Or, early in my career, if I was doing a stand-up routine and someone heckled me, I could have stolen another comedian's line—the perfect, wit-drenched comeback—because comics steal from one another all the time. But I wouldn't; I'd get flummoxed and trip around instead. Every night on my show, I could be mean-spirited and crushing, but that's really not my style. I didn't have a profound epiphany.
I didn't make an earth-shattering change or suddenly morph into a shockingly admirable man. It was just a small moment, something I hardly noticed at the time. Only years later did I figure it out: I made my first conscious, moral decision that day when I was 8, on the playground with a bunch of kids and a blurry picture of something or other.