Leno Choked at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

What a charmed life.  Not only does Jay sit in the most prestigious chair in late night television as host of The Tonight Show, he also got the nod to toast and roast the President and Press Corps at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.  Or #NerdProm as DC locals like to call it.

Like the groundswell of millennials who align themselves with Team Coco, it may not come as a surprise that I don’t like Jay Leno.  What might surprise you is that Jay Leno is considered a comedian.

What you see is what you get.

It was in this so-called “comedian” capacity that he headlined the Correspondents’ Dinner last night.  And, as expected, he brought the White House down.  Not like a coup or a revolution.  And not “brought the house down” like he rocked it.  Leno brought the house down like the guy in your economics class who asked if your professor forgot to assign this week’s problem set.  He tanked.

After a 16 minute warm-up by the POTUS, Leno still managed to pull a hamstring.  Check out his opening line at 17:15.

Rich people eating?!  What?!  That’s the joke we’re opening with tonight?  Wow.

Listen, Jay Leno couldn’t follow NBC’s esteemed “last place network” lineup at the 10-spot, so I’m not surprised that he can’t follow President Obama, who absolutely killed.  And look, I know the President didn’t necessarily write his own jokes, but he delivered them masterfully.  And what does it say about comedy when the host of The Tonight Show can’t make me smile, never mind laugh?

But Leno isn’t just an easy target; he is a fraud.  There is little that offends me more than unfunny comedians who make it big.  And Leno is perhaps the most egregious example of this tragedy.

Let’s have a look at just five of his follies from last night, shall we?

1.  Tired jokes with the same punchlines you’ve heard since Prohibition

At 18 minutes, Leno reels down the list of issues the President is facing, and instead of cooking up something interesting, he leaves us with a generic joke that would probably leave Tickle Me Elmo quiet.

Now some of you on the news have mentioned that the President has been getting a little gray since taking office but he’s had his share of stress: a tough economy, two wars, healthcare fight, Iran, North Korea, [looks up from notes] his mother-in-law moving in with him.  I think that would break most men.

Really?  A mother-in-law joke?  And not even a funny one.  Just a “that sucks for you” kind of thing.  How original.

2. Pausing for non-existent laughter

Jay is clearly used to audiences prompted with the flashing neon cue for APPLAUSE and LAUGH.  Check him out at 17:40 delivering the following snoozer:

I can see the Press Corps is very excited tonight!  This is about as close to a White House press conference as we’ve had in a year, so, this is it, so, enjoy it while it lasts.  Yeah.  Yeah.

3.  Relying on prepared video segments

Because the YouTube clip I’ve posted didn’t include them, we get to watch Jay’s bobbling head react to his own crappy videos and the audience’s lack of amusement.  Here’s a tip: integrating mixed media is clever and can help keep an audience captivated.  But if you don’t have the audience’s attention in the first place, it won’t work.

4.  Stories and openers without a punchline

At 31:15, Leno decides to throw a line to the audience, talking about well-known talking head, Chris Matthews.

Chris has been on The Tonight Show a number of times, he’s always a great guest.   He comes out, sits down, talks straight through for 10 minutes.  Then I ask him a question.  And he talks for another 20 minutes.

I’m aware what the joke is meant to be.  Only it’s not there.  I checked.  He just told us a story, and that was it.  He reported only the facts.  Listen, the reporters are in the audience, Jay.  It’s your job to stand up here and entertain them.

5.  Timing.

Comedy is like small, beneficent explosions.  You have to light the match, let the fuse burn, and then POP! surprise them with your punchline.  At 24:18, we can see how Jay lacks timing altogether.

You know, I was thinking about this.  If you took all the money Republicans spent trying to stop healthcare and all the money Democrats have spent trying to get healthcare, you know something?  We could have had healthcare!  We could have had it a couple of years ago!

Anyone else hear crickets?  And at 32:08, Jay makes my point exactly, after waiting on a technical difficulty with a queued video (see #3).

These jokes are safe and tepid.  They are unoriginal, lazy, and predictable.  John McCain is old!  Barney Frank is out of shape!  Wolf Blitzer’s name is weird!

Ugh.  Come ON.  Don’t hold back, for crying out loud!  You’re the one at the podium.  Take a shot, Jay.  It’s the Correspondents’ Dinner.  Is it too much to ask that someone get served?

Leno couldn’t even improvise and riff off some of the President’s jokes.  He stuck to his script with such dedication that he flipped flashcards.  You’re among the highest paid, biggest names in comedy, and you bring flashcards to the Correspondents’ Dinner?!  This isn’t SAT prep, Jay.  This is your career.

Boo this man!

I understand it’s a matter of taste, but comedy is a profession where the client deliverable is amusement, at the very least.  And I’m not amused; I’m offended and beguiled.  How can this be?  How can this excrement pass as humor?

They say that comedy is tragedy plus time.  Here’s hoping that someday we’ll all look back on this and laugh.  Until then, it’s sour grapes and rotten tomatoes for me.

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