What did he have to say about this mess?
Ninety minutes melted away for Jay Leno the network TV comic Saturday night at The Mirage, with nary a mention of Jay Leno the network TV newsmaker. Astounding. He might as well have performed with a giant, inflatable elephant in the corner. That's what seemed to share the stage with the gray-haired, blue-suited comedy conveyor belt at a packed Terry Fator Theater.
He's a veritable Jokebot, this Jay Leno of 2010. Charge him up and watch him go! In Leno's opening moments, with everyone in attendance assuredly wondering how he would unleash his sizzling comedic sensibilities on the controversy revolving around him and Conan O'Brien at NBC (you know, the one in which O'Brien and NBC have reportedly negotiated a multimillion-dollar contract buyout so Leno could return to the 11:30 p.m. time slot he vacated seven months ago), Leno said this:
"I'm exhausted! I played a foursome today with Tiger Woods!"
Delicious! Now let's get into the O'Brien material. "I'm glad golf is a Scottish game, because those Irish DO NOT LIKE ME!"
But no. He followed with more swings at Woods. "There's a movie coming out about Tiger Woods, maybe you've heard of it," he said. "It's called, 'It Was a Wonderful Life!'"
Hah! That Woods, what a maroon! OK, now, here it comes, "Any redheads in the audience? Raise your hands? I ask, because I've had NOTHING but trouble with redheads lately!"
But no. Instead: "Sarah Palin is rumored to be running for president in 2012! You hear this? A beauty queen running for president! If she wins, she'll be the first beauty queen who can actually do something about world peace, instead of just talking about it!"
Uh. What about, "Is there anyone out there who does NOT have a late-night talk show that has been screwed over by me? You, sir? Congratulations!" Or, "The luckiest man alive right now is David Letterman. I've given him more material than you'll find at Fabric Barn!"
Gales of laughter, for sure. But it never happened. The slimmed-down Leno was lithe and blithe, and the more he stamped out his reliable bits, the more it became obvious he was drifting farther and farther from the magic segue that would lead him back to O'Brien, NBC, and the farcical sequence of events that landed him once again at 11:30 p.m.
Instead, one of the country's most-celebrated comics embarked on an exercise in time travel, front-loading the show with fresh material and closing with antiquities his longtime fans certainly found familiar. The Palin joke drifted into President Obama's promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay: "You know it's getting bad when even the terrorists are losing their homes!" Soon it was racial profiling for potential terrorists: "If your first name is Muhammad and your last name is not Ali, you're going to wait at least 20 minutes before you board a plane so we can run a background check!"
He galloped along, blinders firmly in place, recounting the infamous photos released from the prison at Abu Ghraib in the middle of the last decade. We saw people in chains, nude, with leashes around their necks. Leno seized this moment to display some of his scant Vegas-targeted humor: "You know what that costs in Vegas? Five hundred dollars — and you don't even get a full hour!"
He told this one, too: "White collar crime is up — and that's just in the Catholic Church! I went to confession the other day and the priest said, 'Wait 'til you hear what I did!' " This is not only an old joke, it's a variation of an old joke told more than seven years ago on the same stage by a different comic — Dennis Miller. Miller's version of going to confession to meet the priest-as-sinner, from The Mirage in July 2002: "I walked in and said, 'You first.'"
Maybe it's a coincidence.
Finally, there was an opening for Leno to cut loose, a little more than an hour into the show, when he performed his customary, "What do you do for a living?" shtick for those seated in the first few rows. One guy said he'd lost his job, and Leno asked what that job was. "I worked in IT," the guy called out. Leno said, "Oh, you're the IT guy!" Funny. Then from across the theater, a guy shouted, "He worked for the Conan O'Brien show!"
The crowd was primed for this moment, and let out a communal, "OOOOOOH!" Leno dropped his guard, spitting out, "I can see why you lost your job."
It was the best joke of the show. The crowd cheered and braced for more.
But then Leno shook himself. "That is the stupidest news story in America." It wasn't so stupid during the week, when he joked about it during his ill-fated prime-time show.
I'm one who believes there are Letterman people and Leno people, and being one of the former, I can't believe Letterman — who spent a healthy spate of time carving up NBC during "The Late Show" last week — would have let that moment pass. But hey, Leno gets the ratings, right? At least at 11:30 p.m.
Soon, he was back on autopilot, complaining about how he was watching an episode of Biography on A&E dedicated to James Dean, who died at age 24. Then he watched another episode of A&E about George Abbott, who died at 107. Both episodes were an hour long. This seems out of whack, right? The imbalance prompted Leno to ask, "Wouldn't you think that the 107-year-old guy would at least get an extra 20 minutes?"
Hadn't thought of it, Jay. But now that you mention it, how long should Conan O'Brien's Biography documentary be, if we start it at 12:05 a.m.?
Leno closed with a pair of lengthy relics that are actually quite funny — if you've never seen Leno's stand-up act over the past 10 years. One was about how, when he was a child, he was sent by his mother to fetch special-occasion napkins for Thanksgiving dinner. Little Jay confusedly wandered into the feminine products section, picking up a big box with a photo of a flower and a woman riding a horse on it, then riding his bike back home and depositing these sanitary napkins on the table to complete the holiday place-settings. Familial panic ensued, especially from a shocked Aunt Faye.
Leno finished with a story about buying his parents a VCR back in the mid-'80s, and how he finally convinced them to rent Sister Act — the tape of Sister Act — from the movie-rental store, but how the store was out of that film and so the kid behind the counter suggested Basic Instinct," instead. His parents flipped out in the first few minutes of the movie, called Jay in a panic, and he implored them to shut down the power in the entire house if necessary to stop the "devil machine."
Leno tells this story with the same zeal he experienced when he first realized it was a winner, lo so many years ago. This is the safe play, akin to laying up on the golf course, and that's how Leno likes it. He shoots for the middle of the fairway, never daring to be great, never risking recklessness. He's no Tiger Woods, give him that.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.