Will Make Cameos For Food
Sitting there in the theater, I couldn't help but think back to a few months ago when I was watching "In & Out," a fairly enjoyable satire of our misconceptions about homosexuals. At one point in the movie, Jay Leno appears in a cameo as himself, in which he proceeds to tell a ham-fisted, unfunny joke at the expense of a recently outed gay teacher. Annoyed by the joke, the teacher, played by Kevin Kline, angrily changes the channel.
Of course, that only brought up the memory of when I rented "The Birdcage," another fairly enjoyable satire of our misconceptions about homosexuals. At one point in the movie, Jay Leno appears as himself, in which he proceeds to tell a ham-fisted, unfunny joke at the expense of a scandal-plagued senator. Annoyed by the joke, the senator, as played by Gene Hackman, angrily changes the channel.
And with that I was transported back to 1993, when I took a date to go see "Dave," a fairly enjoyable satire of our fractured political system. At one point in the movie, Jay Leno appears in a cameo as himself, in which he proceeds to tell two ham-fisted, unfunny jokes at the expense of a scandal-plagued President of the United States. Annoyed by the joke, the president's exact double, played by Kevin Kline, angrily changes the channel.
Even a child could spot the obvious pattern. Fairly enjoyable satires. Scandal-plagued political figures. Homosexuals. Kevin Kline. Jay Leno telling unfunny jokes. You can't have one, it seems, without the other.
Now the unsophisticated reader might dissect that pattern and conclude that fairly enjoyable satires of political and sexual mores are getting a might bit predictable. And they would be right... though still unsophisticated and thus not worth the time of highfalutin' brainiacs like you and me.
But the clever reader, the on-the-ball reader, the reader that knows a hawk from a handsaw, would come to no other conclusion but this -- that Jay Leno would make a cameo in a snuff film would someone only ask him. And that's without even mentioning his cameos in "Contact" and "Major League II."
Because that would require me to admit I've seen "Major League II."
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not suggesting that Leno's appearances in all these movies is somehow out of place. These are meant to be biting satires after all, and what's more biting than the nightly monologue from the Tonight Show? I mean, besides when Carson was hosting?
And Leno certainly does the best he can with the lines he's asked to deliver. After all, no one tells a ham-fisted, unfunny joke like Jay Leno.
But appearing as yourself in each and every movie that comes down the pike? There's something kind of unsettling about that. Just as there's something kind of unsettling about the recent trajectory of Leno's career.
Six, seven years ago, that wasn't the case. Leno was fall down funny... a guy who could toss off a punchline with the best of them, who could rattle off straight-from-the-headlines jokes without ever falling into a rut.
That seemed to change shortly after he took over The Tonight Show. Before, it seemed, he stood on the stage without fear, and the laughs came naturally. But afterwards... Leno seemed almost needful, so afraid of offending anyone that his wit became more watered down then a ballpark soda.
The result? A paint-by-numbers opening monologue. Jokes with punchlines so obvious, the audience can play along at home. Clumsy skits. Cloying interviews. And humor so calculated to appeal to everyone that it rendered Leno and The Tonight Show virtually unwatchable.
Unless, that is, you find the Iron Jay skit the pinnacle of comedic achievement.
And that's ultimately the problem with the cameos. It's the same style of self-imposed blandness you can find on The Tonight Show on any given night, only this time on a much larger screen. And Kevin Eubanks isn't there to bail out Leno with his incessant chuckling.
It also doesn't help that a visit to the local cineplex gives you a fifty-fifty shot of seeing Leno on the silver screen. Familiarity breeds contempt after all, and right now, I own underwear that's not as familiar as Jay popping up unannounced in some movie.
Though it's almost a cliche to compare the two, you can't mention Leno and his ubiquitous cameos without taking a look at late night counterpart David Letterman. Comb through the offerings at the local video store, and you'll be hard pressed to find Letterman gadding about in any of them. No Stupid Pet Tricks in "Free Willy 2." No "Uma-Oprah" gags in "Batman & Robin." No "Top 10 Signs Sylvester Stallone Has Gotten Really Fat" in "Copland."
True, you will find a Letterman cameo) in Chris Elliott's cataclysmicly awful movie "Cabin Boy." But anyone whose seen that movie -- and the dozen or so of you have some seriously explaining to do -- will tell you that Letterman's role as the monkey peddler is probably the best thing about "Cabin Boy."
That in no way should be construed as praise.
But the starkest contrast between Letterman and Leno is simply this -- years ago, Letterman signed a multi-picture deal with Disney that paid him an awful lot of money up front with the promise that one day he would churn out motion pictures. Letterman ultimately asked out of the deal... and gave the money back. He realized that as a movie star, he was a hell of a talk show host before serious damage could be inflicted upon the movie-going public. "Cabin Boy" notwithstanding, of course.
Leno, too, spent the earlier part of his career dabbling in movies. A series of small roles in "American Hot Wax" and "Fun With Dick and Jane" ultimately culminated in his lone starring role, alongside Pat Morita in the 1987 offering "Collision Course." Leno and Morita played mismatched cops in a labored buddy movie that is nearly as painfully dull as it sounds. Leno comes across as stiff and wooden. Morita looks like he's trying to hold back sobs.
For Leno, the movie should have served as a lesson -- stick with the stand-up comedy. It's what you do best. And for a time, Leno paid attention. He threw himself head long into the stand-up. He worked his way to the top. He bagged The Tonight Show.
And somehow it wasn't enough.
So the edge came off some of the jokes. And the skits were softened. And then, the cameos... the unending cameos) that blur into each other until nothing remains but the disembodied head of Jay Leno, floating from movie to movie as he searches for the public adoration that will never come.
But these are dark thoughts we'll have to come back to another time. I'm late for a movie... "Amistad," I'm going to go see. I understand that despite some problems with a few of the characters, it's a pretty good movie with a few moving moments and many, many haunting images.
Plus, I hear Leno's cameo as a wise-cracking slave auctioneer is just a knee-slapper.
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