That Leno Kid Might Have a Future in Vegas

approved-headshot-jay-leno.jpgYears melted away last week when something happened that hadn’t since the late-1980s: Jay Leno made me laugh.

Partly, that fallow period of two decades and change is my own fault, having based my Jay malaise entirely on his lengthy, lethargic Tonight Show reign. Relying on tepid comedy segments while exercising awkward interviewing skills, his Tonight is a slog for me. Particularly disappointing are Leno’s monologues, in which—unlike his edgier early days—he beats his jokes into the ground, rarely letting punch lines speak for themselves, shouting encouragement to the studio audience (and viewers) to chortle along. Insecurity is unbecoming in a comic.

Yet with the announcement that he will relinquish Tonight to Jimmy Fallon next year—and the expectation that he will spend even more time in Vegas—I was curious to see if live Leno is a different kettle of shtick. Dropping in on one of The Chin’s regular engagements at The Mirage, I was … flabbergasted.

Fast, sharp, concise and most importantly, hilarious (and still largely clean) in an 80-minute set, in-person Leno is the Jekyll to his TV Hyde, justifying his pre-Tonight rep as a comic master craftsman with stopwatch timing.

Sure, his topics are out of the playbook: politicians, insurance, product safety measures, Walmart, cloning, obesity, technology, airport security, etc. On celebrities: “Did you know Mel Gibson had an uncle who died in a concentration camp? He fell out of the guard tower.” On aging: “I’m at that age where women change in front of me.” On the government spying scandal: “You wanted a president who listened to all Americans. Now ya got one.”

Standard, but delivered like comic smart bombs. More intriguing: his spicier side (imagining the pickup line of the priest who got married: “I put the ‘lick’ in Catholic” and riffs on edible undies); charming kibitzing with the crowd; and forays into a storytelling style (introducing his parents to celebrities visiting Tonight) that is nearly Cosby-esque. Though he’s zealously played stand-up dates all through his late-night TV career, this seemed to be an especially relaxed Leno. Perhaps he’s feeling like he’s ready to slip the Tonight Show straitjacket and exclusively do what he still does best—and, to my delighted surprise, better than most.

Hey Jay: With your Tonight tenure about to end, spend a few more tomorrows here—stretch those drive-by visits into extended runs—because your shows are highly entertaining and tick-tock tight. Except when …

STRIP POSTSCRIPT: Imagine barreling down Interstate 15 doing a breezy 70 mph and then yanking up the parking break and you have an idea of the sudden vibe shift in the Terry Fator Theatre when Leno’s steel-trap comic mind went blank onstage.

“I have completely lost my place,” he told the audience, providing, amid all the relatable comic material he tossed about, the night’s most relatable human moment. Halting his perpetual pacing around the stage and staring straight ahead in concentration, he tried to shake loose from his brain the rest of his routine on the hilarity of owning a dog.

“Aw, screw the dogs,” he finally said, a fitting way to admit that he’d briefly screwed the pooch.

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