ROSEMONT, Ill. — At the end of last year I saw Jerry Seinfeld perform an unfortunately unimpressive and dated set at the Chicago Theatre. I was especially struck not just by how lackluster Seinfeld's presence was but, in a time when comedians are constantly evolving and rolling out new material, by how old the jokes were. After seeing Jay Leno perform at the Rosemont Theatre on Wednesday night, I have to give Seinfeld a little credit: At least he was magnanimous enough to avoid explicitly referencing dates in his tired material.
Leno, performing in a suit and tie to a half-empty theater, added insult to injury by opening joke after unrelated joke with halfheartedly made-up time stamps like "a couple months ago" or "last week" or "a couple weeks ago" before directly referencing news stories that were often several years old (and in the case of a joke about a toilet plunger used as the model for a resuscitation device, as practically ancient as 1992).
1992, what a year for Leno. That was the year he took the step from promising stand-up comedian to talk show host, taking over "The Tonight Show" from Johnny Carson. He left his highly lucrative hosting duties in 2010, then stepped back into the role a few months later (let's not get into the Conan O'Brien controversy) before retiring again in 2014 and passing the show on to that lovably sycophantic scamp Jimmy Fallon.
So what has Leno been up to for the last three years? The impression his overlong 90-minute set gave is that in between filming episodes of his TV series "Jay Leno's Garage," the car nut and former talk show host has been sitting on his couch watching the news and scribbling out one-liners for a show that he no longer has. And with this tour, he has gathered together these various unconnected bits — all very reminiscent of his opening monologue patter — and compiled nearly an hour of laugh-an-hour, rapid-fire observational comedy paired with some storytelling.
"Listen to this," Leno says, as if he is not holding a microphone in a room of people who paid money to do exactly that.
"Oh!" he says, perfunctorily, by way of transition to the next non sequitur.
Did you hear about the guy who tried to sneak a bomb onto a plane in his underwear? How about the photos that surfaced from Abu Ghraib? Bet you didn't know Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs!
Though his show dominated the ratings, the jokes in Leno's opening monologues were never especially insightful or hilarious, but at least they were timely. Tramping across the stage gripping the microphone like he's going to wring the comedy out of it, his delivery has lost the confidently underplayed demeanor he could employ with a captive studio audience.
"I'm getting old in a young business, which is hard," the 66-year-old Leno said, leaning on the microphone stand toward the end of his set in a section that started to connect a little. But after a few stories about his parents and a genuinely funny one about his wife of 37 years, he settled into previously recorded material about political correctness and "kids these days" tropes.
His eyes did light up for a second as he was mocking human relations departments. "Human relations," he said, applying sarcastic air quotes. He then made a sudden connection and blurted out "Bill O'Reilly got fired," before continuing on with his rehearsed joke. I wanted more of that moment. He could have landed an easy joke there simply by subbing in O'Reilly's name in place of Bill Clinton's in a few spots.
Yes, Jay Leno has got those Bill Clinton jokes you've been looking for.
Unfortunately, it appears that the level of discourse Leno is prepared to bring to current events that are more, well, current than a few months is to literally just say them.
Over two decades Leno honed his chops for framing a lame joke around a current event. Under that model of comedy, the lame joke enjoys a briefly elevated status due to its proximity to the current event. But you can't tour a five-minute set discussing current events each night. And on television, Leno likely had a large team of writers putting his monologues together — one man cannot a nightly monologue make. So instead he's got years worth of monologue material packed together in no particular order. And when a news story is stale, the lame joke doesn't get elevated. So you're just left with a stale, lame joke.
At one point he went on a run of airline jokes that only highlighted the lack of topicality that plagued his entire set. United Airlines — as you may have heard — took a bit of a public relations pummeling last week. In light of that event, jabs about a drunk American Airlines co-pilot from a year ago went from being out-of-date to being blatantly out-of-touch. If you're talking about airline news in your news-centric set this week, you'd better be talking about the 800-pound airline in the room.
Leno's opener was blues singer-songwriter Nicholas Barron. Barron is an earnest musician and an accomplished guitarist, but even he seemed confused about what he was doing opening a comedy show with a 30-minute solo concert.
The only logical reasons I could find for this choice of opener were that either Leno really liked Barron's music and wanted to see him perform despite the complete disconnect in styles or Leno is so insecure with his set (as he certainly should be) that he doesn't want to juxtapose his own performance against that of another comedian.
Only Leno knows the real reason. But as Hillary Clinton said just last week, "At this point, what difference does it make?"