Since exiting The Tonight Show earlier this year, Jay Leno hasn’t said much away from the stage. He’s traded in being the object of seemingly every pop culture blowhard’s disparagement for the opportunity to reintegrate himself back into the routine of being a full-time traveling comedian, which appears to be the right move given how tumultuous his descent from Carson’s late night throne revealed itself to be.
After all, Leno’s reputation as the consummate stand-up guy was solidified through hours and hours spent under the lights of the Los Angeles club circuit beginning in the 1970s, so the decision to retreat to a territory where the only criticism of his performance emanates from those whom have paid to see him is anything but surprising.
Was it really his decision? Did he operate with complete autonomy regarding when and why he would ultimately relinquish the seat he had held for more than two decades?
Well, that depends on which story you’re willing to believe.
Leno would tell you that he was ready to hand over the reins to Jimmy Fallon with heavenly grace and benevolence from the moment it was announced who his successor would be, but my seasoned eye tells me that NBC executives may have had to pull the strings just a little bit harder. With the sting of Leno’s ill-fated 2009 transition fresh in their minds, I think they went out of their way to ensure that it stuck this time, meaning that their faith in Fallon’s ability to separate himself never wavered the way it did when Conan O’Brien was set up to fail.
Having “The Jay Leno Show” serve as a lead-in for O’Brien’s show was as bush league as it gets, because the softball format came off as a shallow attempt to keep Leno on television long enough to keep the ratings at an acceptable height while simultaneously alienating Conan and his legion of fans falling under the 18-49 demographic.
It was essentially “The Tonight Show” without trying to hide the fact that celebrities were on the show for any reason other than shilling whatever project they happened to be releasing at the moment. Leno was the affable people pleaser to Letterman’s snarky misanthrope with a dark side, and, once the tension peaked, well, you know the rest.
What surprised me about Leno’s recent stop at Seneca Niagara Casino is that none of that mattered. He took the stage and delivered 75 minutes of topical observations to a crowd that had made the choice to stick with him in spite of the controversy.
The first half played out in typical monologue fashion as he riffed on everything from American eating habits to disgraced politicians Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner, but it wasn’t until he began joshing with the first few rows that his personality shined through. He exhibited an innate ability to relate to fans on a neighborly level rather than coming across as the big shot that left New Rochelle and never looked back, and I found his transparency to be most refreshing as the evening came to a close.
The only quibble I had with his material was the ripped-from-the-headlines school of comedy he draws so much inspiration from, because the shelf life of certain jokes isn’t nearly long enough to justify their inclusion in the set down the road.
Then again, Leno’s game has never been predicated on cutting edge barbs built to outlast the society in which they’re produced, so his decision to keep it clean isn't necessarily a bad thing.