BWW Review: Jay Leno Tells Jokes at the Kennedy Center
What would have happened if Jay Leno were still hosting "The Tonight Show" today?
The longest monologue in late night would probably have been Trump heavy, with every day's twist ripe for the same kind of sharpened commentary it gets nightly from Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Conan O'Brien and Trevor Noah, as well as weekly lashings from Samantha Bee, John Oliver and Bill Maher.
But still on the road, as he was even while he was on the "Tonight" show from 1992 to 2010, Leno at 66 almost seems relieved to be free of daily political grind.
In a return trip Friday to the Kennedy Center, where he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2014, it was nearly an hour into the set before he ever mentioned the T-word, relying on tried and true gags that have been staples of his stand-up set for years.
Leno has been at this so very long that it's easy for him to turn out 90 minutes of fairly rapid fire gags even without the cue cards that guided him through his TV years.
Singers tour for years doing their old hits, so why not comics too?
Leno peppered his long set with a few fresh references. Noting his appearance on St. Patrick's Day, during March Madness and Spring Break, he called it "the alcoholic's trifecta." He mentioned the arrest of an Oklahoma state senator being caught with an underage boy the day before, adding the uncomfortable tag, "He said he was a leprechaun."
But mostly, it seemed his political observations stopped sometime last summer, calling both major candidates poor choices and noting that the top speakers at the Republican Convention - Trump, Gingrich and Giuliani - all had three wives, but Mitt Romney only had one - "and he's the Mormon!"
He praised Dr. Ben Carson ("Get that guy a Red Bull!") for being a pediatric neurosurgeon. "He's used to working with tiny brains, which is why he endorsed Donald Trump."
He got the biggest applause for these gags, including the one in which he criticized Trump for skipping the Correspondents Dinner (which Leno himself hosted in 2010), using the very word the President used with Billy Bush.
But he also threw in some barbs aimed at the other side, for the appearance of balance, including one that declared "Obama had a 60 percent approval rating - the other 40 percent were taxpayers."
Largely, though, he stayed away from the kind of politics that would have consumed him on the air, sticking to sure fire, well-honed gags he's been doing for a decade.
He sets them up so that they sounded like they were torn from the news. But these newspapers are badly yellowed - a "recent study" about the difference of men's and women's brains; "women's are in their head."
When he did gags about Charlie Sheen and the barely remembered Paula Broadwell, it almost sounded like one of those old "Tonight" roast VCRs on late night infomercials.
But don't get him started on TV ads. He'll go on and on about erectile dysfunction, insurance policies, and the endless side effects of TV-advertised drugs with names that sound like they came from Jerry Lewis ("Plavix!").
Leno has the appearance of a guy who works clean, but he still noses around the bedroom and the bathroom for laughs, if only because the phrase "explosive diarrhea" can't miss.
As good as he is in the endless "did you see this in the paper" observations, he could be very good at longer form humor, as in his remembrance of his parents and his mother's trouble with the VCR, which has been part of his act for more than 20 years, to his days performing for the mob when he was starting out.
It sounded like he was being a little more confessional when he talked about being the "old guy" on the "Tonight" show set, where interns went blank if you mentioned dial phones or even pencils; who don't know what you mean when you say it's "half past two," or thought "Dick Van Dyke" was an anti-gay slur.
But even if it makes it seem more real when he adds the detail that he turned his head the wrong way "on Thursday," to demonstrate how he can't heal as quickly as he one did, he's been doing that joke for many years of Thursdays.
People left satisfied, though.