When you’re one of a few people in television history to have hosted your own late-night show for more than 20 years and then stepped away from it, what do you do now? If you’re Jay Leno, you hit the road. Leno, who succeeded Johnny Carson as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show in 1992, leaving the program in 2014 (with a bit of drama in between), is still working the stand-up job he had before his coveted TV gig. By his own estimation, Leno plays about 210 live shows a year—up from the 150 or so he did annually while still on The Tonight Show. This includes clubs, casinos and events like this past Sunday night’s show in downtown Music City at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
At his peak, his show dominated the ratings. The jokes in Leno’s opening monologues were timely. His delivery and demeanor captivated the studio audience. Leno, who now hosts Jay Leno’s Garage on CNBC, because of his love of vintage cars, says that his desire to stay active as a stand-up is rooted in “being an observer.”
“Real comics don’t really fit in anywhere. You’re not really a blue-collar guy anymore,” he was quoted as saying.
The 67-year-old, performing in a suit and tie to a packed house, gave a 90-minute set, speaking about his life after late night and the challenges of being a political joke-teller in a polarized environment. Yes, Jay still includes those Bill Clinton jokes. At one point he went on a run of airline jokes and a joke about his dad’s toilet seat, but after a few stories about his parents and a genuinely funny one about his wife of 37 years, the jig was up. With this tour, all very reminiscent, he has gathered together various bits and compiled nearly two hours of rapid-fire observational comedy paired with some storytelling.
Comedians are constantly evolving and rolling out new material. Over two decades, Jay Leno honed his chops for framing jokes around current events. Under that model of comedy, the joke enjoys an elevated status due to its proximity to current events. It’s still relevant today and he does it perfunctorily.