Jay Leno in concert, Huntsman Center, University of Utah, Friday, 8 p.m. With opening act Walter and Hayes. One show only.
"Utah. A pretty, great state," chided Jay Leno. He had arrived in Salt Lake City a few hours earlier and he had seen those Chamber of Commerce billboards encouraging Utahns to like themselves."A pretty great state? I bet it took a million dollars to come up with that one. It's hard to believe the Japanese are ahead of us.
"A pretty great state? That's like a man saying to his wife, `You know, honey, you're mildly attractive."'
And that was just in the first two minutes of his Friday night concert. By the time he wound up almost two hours later, he had held up a mirror not only to Utah but also to most of modern American civilization. As Leno sees it, civilization is just one big straight man, waiting for him to come along with the punch lines.
"Have you seen what Arco has done?" asks Leno. "They've combined the all-night mini-market with the 24-hour gas station to give us a one-stop robbery center. This way, criminals don't have to drive around all night wasting gas. You pull in at 9:15, shoot the attendant and you're in bed by 11."
According to David Letterman, Leno is the funniest comedian working today. Friday night's concert at the Huntsman Center proved that Letterman was exaggerating only a little. The audience loved him, and this despite the fact that they were missing seeing the Jazz surprise the Lakers.
Leno's observations about life as we know it - basically fast-food and television - are funny because they hit home. If you put a chicken in front of a box of Chicken McNuggets, says Leno, it would probably say "I see nothing here that offends me." And what about those General Motors Corp. commercials? "What kind of nationality is Goodwrench?" Leno wants to know. "Is it Indian?"
But often it is not so much what Leno says as how he says it. If you wrote down his jokes and read over them the next day you would discover that a great many of them - the very ones that were hilarious in person - are only mildly amusing. To a large extent it is Leno's delivery - something about the bemusement in his nasal voice and the way he emphasizes a word you don't expect him to - that sets him apart from other comedians. And makes other comedians try to imitate him.
"Do you see what Burger King is selling now?" asks Leno, the wonder and the disdain all mixed together. "French Toast Sticks?" This is not a joke, of course, this is really a menu item. But the three words somehow sound like the punch line to a side-splitting joke. And the kicker makes you realize a fast-food truth you may have otherwise been willing to ignore: "It's bread that's been re-breaded and dipped in oil!"
Leno uses no props, no accents and no four-letter words. It's just him and his oversized chin up there on stage. He tells stories and one liners with equal ease. When he banters with the audience he proves to be witty as well as funny.
Opening for Leno was a local band called Walter and Hayes. It's hard to know what to say about this group. They obviously played and sang well, from an Elvis imitation to a rousing rendition of "New York, New York." They had lots of energy and they were having a good time.
But it's hard to say they would have been memorable if they hadn't been wearing pajamas, which they removed to reveal clown costumes, which they removed to reveal beach robes. At least they don't take themselves too seriously, which leaves the audience free to do the same, but to enjoy them nonetheless.