CLEARWATER — Sunday night at the Capitol Theatre, Jay Leno continued kicking a late-night habit, moving from the Tonight Show to a tomorrow looking a lot like Leno's yesterdays as a relentlessly touring stand-up comedian.
A less-obsessed entertainer would take a break after 22 years hosting — and briefly lurking over — an American institution. Leno finished his Tonight Show reign Thursday, decompressing the way mortal comedians eke out livings: whirlwind touring across Florida in a weekend.
Leno came to Clearwater armed with jokes ripped straight from headlines of newspapers yellowed with age. The question of whether the 63-year-old comic is still funny was answered early and often, even without benefit of doctored celebrity videos, stupid human tricks and big-band rim shots for his punchlines. Just a man, a microphone and time-capsule comedy that still killed.
Of course, Leno has always been a matter of taste, and taste in his case is usually a matter of age. The crowd at the Cap was squarely in his target demographic, tapping feet to a warm-up act of Gershwin and Berlin classics sung a cappella by a talented chorus that could be their grandchildren.
Leno's previous employment was a side-stepped topic most of the evening, after he was introduced as Tonight Show host, but protested from off-stage: "No. Not anymore."
Stepping out in a dark suit that could've come off NBC's rack, a purple print tie and U.S. flag lapel pin, Leno started working baby-blue right off the bat, with jokes slightly naughtier than he'd get away with on network television.
No chit-chat or shout-outs to the city or the renovated Capitol Theatre that other comics would use to fill time. Leno flipped a switch and jokes kept pouring out. It didn't matter if you'd heard before that Hugh Hefner's fiancee is "bedpanning for gold," or wondered if anyone would stop laughing at phrases like "explosive diarrhea." Leno was in his element, belching jokes like a silver-haired smokestack for 80 minutes to his adoring fans.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.