Jay Leno took the stage at Casino Rama Tuesday night like he was shot out of a cannon. The man who concluded 17 years as host of The Tonight Show Friday blitzed through an 80-minute act that rocked the sold out, 5000-seat theatre.
He joked about cats, Michael Jackson, VCRs, condoms, fat kids, exploding diarrhea, his parents and even Catholic priests who leave the priesthood to marry. What pickup lines do they use, Leno asked. “I put the ‘Lick’ in Catholic”?
It was like watching a 59-year-old win the Tour de France. Leno paced the stage, constantly ran his fingers through his thick white hair, charged through his sure-fire material and stopped just once to take a sip of water. If he had been Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds, he would have been forced to pee in a bottle after the show.
And remarkably, astoundingly, he never, ever mentioned that in a few short months he will be launching the boldest experiment in the history of NBC’s prime time schedule—the five-nights a week Jay Leno Show (premiering Sept. 14). It took 50 minutes before he even mentioned The Tonight Show, and then it was just in passing. There was no, “Hey, did anybody see Conan last night?” He stuck to his script, to the comedian’s code, to some personal standard of comedy that prevented him from taking a bow for a hell of a ride in late night. People were dying to salute him for that achievement, but that seemed to be so last week for Leno.
When he took the stage, he was greeted with applause and cracked that it was weird visiting another country now that America has a president that is liked. There had to have been five great comedy minutes in that idea, but Leno threw it away and swung straight into his set. After that, it was like watching an entire Tonight Show consisting of nothing but monologue.
That’s impressive for sheer volume, stamina and effect, but I wish his routine could have been more topical. As performance, though, it was a Master Class. Leno puts on a clinic on how to use your voice and his is a booming instrument. Everything is stamped and delivered and can be heard in the farthest corner of the high and wide auditorium.
Leno, however, made little effort to tailor his material to his Canadian audience. There was a bit about The Littlest Hobo, a Canadian TV show fewer and fewer locals remember. There were many references to “our country,” to sponsors and fast food outlets that only appear in America, to California mud slides and other issues a tad off the radar up here.
Leno aimed fastball after fastball straight down the middle, as in Middle America. The Middle Canadians who flock to Rama ate it all up. One wonders how it all would have played, say, in downtown Toronto, where a few jokes about foreigners may have been called high and outside. Example: Leno said guys named Mohammad should expect to wait an extra 20 minutes at customs, unless their last name happens to be Ali. Good golly, as we say in Brampton.
Then again, Leno the ultimate club comic would insist that everyone is fair game and the politically correct should get over our selves.
The best part of the set, for me, came towards the end when he slowed down and addressed patrons in the front rows, doing the old what’s your name, where ya from routine. While he bagged all the usual suspects (lawyers, accountants, women with cleavage), it was fun watching him play comedy chess at that speed. When a babe out front told him she was in human relations, he quickly asked if she was the one who gave the sexual harassment seminar. “Not in that sweater you’re not” he zinged.
When it was done, Leno wished everybody a good weekend, even though it was a Tuesday night. You couldn’t blame him for not knowing what day it was or what city he was in. Since his last Tonight Show Friday he’s played Atlantic City and now Rama. He left for the Toronto airport right after the show and planned on being in his NBC office in Burbank tomorrow morning. His stamina on-stage and off- is astounding. But dammit, Jay, savor it all now. Take the standing O, take the victory lap for all those Tonights, you’ve earned it.
My buddy Bill Harris was also at the show Tuesday night, read his review in the Toronto Sun here.