Jay Leno's stand-up comedy is a stripped-down, freer, funnier version of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
Watching Leno live is like watching his on-screen monologues without the (frequently) unfunny guests, laugh-happy Kevin Eubanks, network censors and obnoxious variety-show segments. As the big-chinned funnyman is at his best when he's alone in front of an audience, his performance Wednesday night in the Niagara Fallsview Casino's Avalon Theatre was a treat for the sold-out audience.
Some of the comedian's best jokes -- unlike on "The Tonight Show," where he is more limited in choice of subject matter -- relied on punch lines about male reduction surgery and flame-retardant prophylactics. But the tried-and-true worked for this crowd, too. Consider Leno's well-received take on the now-defunct immigration bill:
"I guess they will let in 12 million illegals, but we get to deport Paris Hilton. I think that's fair."
Leno became host of "The Tonight Show" in 1991. In the ensuing 16 seasons, he has filled a niche as the comedian of the masses -- affable, never scandalous, a bland everyman who lacks the dark edge of the stand-up circuit comics or the sarcastic incisiveness of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. A stop on Leno's show is de rigueur for any big-name actor or musician promoting a new project and for many politicians on the campaign trail.
Given the rather restricting role he has cast for himself, it was refreshing to see that Leno is still capable of thinking on his feet and carrying off a solid 90 minutes of well-received comedy without the help of misprinted headlines and the sidewalk antics of the fame-hungry.
Leno bounded onstage, his trademark bouffant looking particularly unruly, at precisely 8:30 p.m. He dived in without introduction, reeling off jokes with rapid-fire delivery in front of an American flag background that was the only concession to the July 4 holiday.
The crowd loved it, giving Leno a standing ovation before he began and responding with applause to his best lines. The mostly middle-aged fans particularly appreciated Leno's thoughts on the foibles of airheaded young people and aging parents.
As usual, material with a current twist went over well. A riff on scientists' new theories about an "obesity virus" drew guffaws.
"Right, let's say obesity was a virus. Does that mean you can call in fat to work now?" Leno asked. "I think I'm gonna take some M&Ms and lie down."
Leno was sharp in back-and-forth with the audience, coming up with some of his best jokes while quizzing fans on their occupations, companions and love lives. He can still write -- and think -- quickly. That raises a question: Why the plethora of stale material?
A significant portion of the show relied on dated jokes about Michael Jackson's trial, Dick Cheney's hunting accident and the Abu Ghraib scandal. Lines with a clear current-events connection were rare, and only a short segment recognized that Leno's performance took place on the Canadian side of the border.
At times, the live show felt like a "Tonight Show" rerun: enjoyable but obviously past its prime.
Leno didn't exactly plumb dark new depths, sticking fairly close to his nice-guy routine, but he did allow himself to use an occasional unprintable word or punch line to give his routine some extra heft. It paid off, and the audience appreciated his efforts, applauding him effusively and approaching the stage for autographs as he took his bows.
Leno will be back in the Avalon Theatre today, playing to another sold-out house at 8:30 p.m .
Wednesday night in Avalon Theatre of Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort.
Another performance at 8:30 tonight.