Dallas — Jay Leno, freed from the restrictions and conventions of broadcast television, has returned to his stand-up roots of irreverent, piercing commentary. Right? Alas, no. After a rapid-fire series of one-liners about tame topics, the performance was off and running for 90 minutes on Tuesday at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House. It was as if George Carlin never walked the Earth.
Perhaps the ladies wearing mink coats was a tip off that this would be a conservative show. For people who rarely see live contemporary comedy, the plush attendees lapped it up, even tried to give him a standing ovation. Except the house lights went up almost immediately at performance’s end.
Can’t technically fault Leno’s comedy. Each bit was well written—there were punchlines galore—and perfectly, albeit perfunctorily, performed. Abundant sexual humor that would have been mildly risqué in the ‘50s was enthusiastically received. But the joke about Catholic clergy pick-up lines (“We put the lick in Catholic.”) did at least tickle the edge.
There were chuckle-provoking routines on soccer and football, binge-watching, competitive eating as a U.S. sport, celebrities and their children, pharmaceutical commercials and their endless lists of appalling side effects (“Explosive diarrhea? Erectile dysfunction? And don’t those two things cancel each other out?”). The most virtuosic aspect of the performance was his ability to render titters on controversial figures—General Petraeus, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton—without touching on any controversy.
Jokes about phones and airline travel are a signal that a comic needs to expand the sphere of influence. A routine on youth sneering at flip-phones and the difficulty of using the iPhone to make a phone call was funny, relatable, and so very overdone. But the bit on marveling how several men had been arrested for in-flight masturbation in spite of paltry elbowroom was cute.
A few times in the night, Leno laid aside his comedy writers’ material and told stories. He resurrected the tales of his elderly parents’ cluelessness in relating to show-business stars and slipped in a clever one on his wife missing out on meeting Prince William and wife Kate Middleton when they were temporarily stranded in their driveway. Best of the night were stories about his early days when he, like other comics, depended on strip clubs and mob joints for work. Back when Leno was a stand-up who danced on comedy's edge.
Jerry Seinfeld hosted Jay Leno on an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee that provides a glimpse of Leno as the comic he once was. Go to this link to see it.