It's only fitting that Jay Leno should be on the road again despite having been handed the plum every stand-up comedian dreams of--a steady gig on "The Tonight Show." He had an East Coast show over the weekend, and on Tuesday night showed up at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center to play to an audience of approximately 3,000. That's what we've come to expect of him: He's our working-class comic.
Every good comedian appeals to something unspoken in us, a frustration, an anxiety, even an outrage. Leno speaks to the beleaguered American Everyman who daily finds himself (or herself) the object of con artists working at every level of society, from the presidential hopeful to the magazine editor to the advertising huckster.
Leno's not a polemicist; he's smart enough to know that that's the road to comedic ruin. He works under his theme. But by the end of his nearly two-hour concert, you can't help but recognize that virtually every joke he's used points to the gap between reality and appearance in American life, between the pandemic exploiter and the exploited--meaning all the rest of us.
Take Baby Jessica, for example (the child who fell into the well-shaft in Texas). Leno notes how Vice President George Bush crowed that only in America would a whole people rally around a child in distress. "Oh yeah, the Swiss'd let her die," he said mockingly. " 'It's not cost-effective' (to rescue her)." Gary Hart earns a complimentary nod for having remained faithful to his wife through the whole of his recent 60-minute "Nightline" interview. In other words, who is Hart kidding anymore?
Leno takes some side excursions into comic improbabilities, such as the time his mother, having cooked a Thanksgiving dinner and realizing she has no dinner napkins, sends young Jay to the market, from which he pridefully returns bearing a huge box of sanitary napkins.
But shortly he's back on track. Are we really to believe that "Star Trek's" Enterprise has discovered a race of women who have never known men, when they wear push-up bras, lipstick and tease their hair?
Airlines get it next. "They say flying is safer than walking. When's the last time you saw an insurance machine in a shoe store?" He notes, "I always get stuck in the middle seat, between the screaming baby with diarrhea and the octogenarian with halitosis. We're like the three ages of man winging through time."
This last line is indicative of another of Leno's sources of appeal: His language. Some of his protests are unquestionably exaggerated for effect, but he has a sharp sense of imagery and he loves a vivid turn of phrase, such as "the syphilitic Druids" one finds in a convenience store after hours, joined by "trolls, mutants (and) people with no known birth records."
To anyone who follows stand-up comedy in the clubs, or even on television, Leno's act seems overlong. But that may be because stand-up is one of the most ruthlessly cannibalistic performance forms, and Leno has been prominent long enough by now to have had the shirt lifted off his back, both in attitude and points of reference, by scores of lesser comedians. It's hard for an American original not to see himself splintered by so many copying mirrors these days.
But Leno's generosity and lack of malice is evident, as is his absence of pretense. And in the sum of his material you find a genuine concern about what an ersatz republic America is becoming, in which the whole of our waking day is spent dealing with omnipresent, everlastingly upbeat phoniness. He validates our nostalgia for the real thing, in whatever form it presents itself.