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Leno shows he can still write jokes

The host's return isn't without signs that his staff will be needed.

January 03, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Those tuning into "The Tonight Show" on Wednesday hoping to witness a writers-strike-induced breakdown -- Jay Leno telling knock-knock jokes while staring wistfully at an empty teleprompter, guests fumbling to find something to say in a desperate attempt to fill an unscripted hour -- were no doubt disappointed.

Leno is, after all, a comedian, and way back in the way back he did write his own jokes. As he was happy to remind the audience Wednesday night. "You know what I'm doing?" he said midway through his opening. "I'm doing what I did the day I started. I write jokes and wake my wife up in the middle of the night and say, 'Honey, is this funny?' So if this monologue doesn't work, it's my wife's fault. She said the joke was funny."

The jokes were funny enough -- a Bush joke, a Britney Spears joke, an Al Qaeda joke, a Dennis Kucinich short joke -- you know, standard Leno lite. Somethin' for everybody. Not that Leno shied away from the topic at hand. "Let's get to it," he said by way of greeting, launching into a comedian's eye view of the writers strike, complete with a visual comparison of NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker's house (cue amazing mansion) and the debris-strewn hovels of "Writer's Town."

There was also a little verbal tap dancing as Leno explained how he was really supporting the writers by crossing the picket line and working on a struck show on a struck network. He was working within guild rules, he explained, wasn't using outside writers, because "I am a writer; I'm on the side of the writers."

What it came down to, he explained, was 19 people putting 160 people out of work, something he apparently could not stomach -- even though he totally supports the writers' right to strike and even walked the picket line for weeks.

In other words, Mike Huckabee was not the only smooth-talking politician on Wednesday's show.

Huckabee, on the other hand, knew a good thing when he saw it. Earlier in the day, he said he didn't think he would be crossing a picket line, mistakenly believing that Leno had negotiated a deal with the Writers Guild of America as late-night rival David Letterman had.

On the show, the Republican presidential candidate didn't mention the strike. Glib and dimpled, he instead discussed everything from the origins of his first guitar (his parents got it for him from the J.C. Penney catalog for $99, paid in installments) to his plans to dismantle the Internal Revenue Service by creating a 23% consumption tax. And he explained how he lost more than 100 pounds since Leno last interviewed him seven years ago: He cut out sugar and fried foods. For a moment or two, viewers would have been forgiven for wondering whether they had accidentally TiVoed "Ellen" -- considering that his next guest was Emeril Lagasse.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing; it's just not what late night has traditionally been about. Especially during award season, when the guest list tends to glitter a bit more.

So can Jay Leno come up with a fairly funny monologue five times a week until the writers strike ends? Well, it's an election year and that will help, but there's a reason hosts hire 19 writers and that's because it is really hard to write one of these shows by yourself. And you can't count on Huckabee every night. How many top celebrities will cross the picket lines for a few minutes on "The Tonight Show" remains to be seen.

Already, there were worrisome signs of time fillers. Just after the monologue, Leno took a page from Carol Burnett's book and opened the floor to the audience. I don't know whether they had been vetted, but the best they could do was ask whether Leno would consider moving his show to Branford, Mo., or retiring to Daytona Beach, Fla.

The answers were, mercifully, resounding noes. But still, this is not a good sign at all. Because although Leno may be able to tap-dance when necessary, he doesn't have Burnett's singing voice. And no way can he do the Tarzan yell.

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