ATLANTIC CITY - When Jay Leno took over "The Tonight Show" from Johnny Carson 17 years ago, he brought an edge and quick wit to the late-night TV talk circuit to go with his stellar reputation as a stand-up comic.
But somewhere during those years, the guy who used to kill as a guest on "Late Night with David Letterman" lost that edge, turning "The Tonight Show" into a vanilla, mostly boring, roll-your-eyes celebrity lovefest.
As much as critics threw rocks at the moon-jawed Leno, however, the comic always got the last laugh. He pretty much dominated the late-night ratings during his entire run, leaving frustrated Letterman fans asking the perennial question, "Why? Why is Leno No. 1 when Dave is so much funnier?"
On Saturday night, the day after passing the reins to "Tonight Show" successor Conan O'Brien, the 59-year-old television icon gave a sold-out Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa Event Center a reminder of the comic that he used to be.
In all fairness, Leno never gave up being a stand-up comic. He brags that he never spent a dime of his talk-show money and still lives on his stand-up income, performing on the road nearly every weekend despite his daily TV duties.
When he's not in front of the cameras and millions of people, Leno still has the ability to bring down a house, although a setting like the 2,000-plus-seat Event Center seemed too big for the type of comic he is.
Like on TV, there's nothing flashy or big about his comedy; it's all about the material, which does not lean as heavily on current events and politics as you might think.
Wanda Sykes, who was performing later in Borgata's Music Box, surprised the crowd by briefly introducing her "very dear friend," and Leno came on stage without an opener as people rushed to their seats.
There was no pomp and circumstance. No friendly hellos. He went right to business, delving into some political material in his usual stuffy suit and mile-a-minute delivery.
After delivering some quick one-liners about President Barack Obama and current events, Leno focused on nonpolitical material, hitting on everything from familiar comic targets such as airlines to his relationship with his parents.
"Why do the airlines take your nose clippers?" he asked the crowd. "Have you seen terrorists? Do they even know what nose clippers are?"
Unlike his late-night monologue, Leno is far more animated and interesting in a stand-up setting, and he doesn't annoyingly repeat his punchlines. Without uttering a vulgarity once all evening, he still managed to show that edge that longtime Leno fans always cherished.
"White collar crime is up, and that's just in the church," Leno said, going on to talk about priests having affairs. "How does a priest hit on a chick in the first place? Do they have the same corny lines? 'Whoa … looks like I've died and gone to heaven. I put the lick in Catholic.'"
And he really went off on obese people.
"They say obesity may be linked to a virus," he said. "Even if it is, so what? Can you call in fat to work? 'I'm not going to make it into work today. My ass is as big as a house.'
"And have you seen how fat our children are? They are so fat it takes Michael Jackson an hour to molest one."
As funny as Leno was most of the night, he did have his off moments, particularly during one routine when he stopped right in the middle of it because he forgot how it ended. He stumbled, trying to recover, but ultimately tried to save himself by chatting with the audience about their professions, which mostly didn't work.
While very little of the material seemed fresh, it was inexcusable when Leno started rolling out jokes that were as dated as his haircut. George Bush choking on a pretzel? Hurricane Katrina? You have got to be kidding.
Perhaps the biggest shocker of the night was that he barely touched on the fact that he spent 17 years as the host of America's most popular late-night TV show, telling a cute, but obviously dated, story about how his parents met Sting. Other than that, he made no mention whatsoever that he ended his long late-night run on Friday night, nor the fact he was moving to primetime in the fall.
When Leno does finally reappear in the fall, it's hard to believe he could be even more bland than he has on late night for nearly two decades. But if you really want to see how funny Leno can still be, check out his act next time he comes to Atlantic City. He can still bring it … when he wants to.