Leno’s O.J. Jokes, Dancing Itos Keep Reality at a Safe Distance


We see them night after night, right after the news. We go from Dave to Jay and from Jay to Dave--especially if Ted’s talking about something dull. But one night last week, I resisted the urge to surf the airwaves. Earlier that day I had visited NBC Studios in Burbank to attend a live taping of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and thought it would be interesting to compare.

Besides, I wanted to count O.J. jokes--a tricky endeavor, since some jokes have multiple punch lines. There were nine in Jay’s monologue, one from his Mr. Brain character, and 10 more from comic Jack Cohen.

And that doesn’t include the 75-second sketch featuring the Dancing Itos, a troupe of five Asian Americans bearded and berobed to resemble the most famous jurist in the land. This time, the choice of chapeau--hard hat, Stetson, Indian headdress--transformed them into the Village Itos. Instead of “YMCA,” the tune was “OJLA.”


The choreography required the ersatz chief to open his robe to reveal a loincloth and do a few pelvic thrusts. The audience, myself included, broke up laughing.


“We did tremendous last night,” Jay Leno was saying the day after. “We got a 6.8 to a 4.1, so we did great.”

These would be the overnight national Nielsens, with each point signifying 942,000 households. This particular show was an anomaly; David Letterman’s “Late Show” usually beats “The Tonight Show.” But Jay’s arrow is way up. Over the past year, he has cut Dave’s lead in half, and on his home turf of Los Angeles, he’s opened a wide lead. Since last summer, Jay’s share of the L.A. audience has jumped from 14% to 20%, while Dave has slipped from 15% to 14%.

In comedy, timing is critical. It’s interesting that “The Tonight Show’s” spectacular surge in the ratings began after a spectacular double homicide in Brentwood--not that there’s anything funny about murder, and not that just anyone can pull off this type of humor. Even in this age of coarse comedy, there are limits, as shock jock Howard Stern and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato recently discovered.

Leno, unlike Stern and D’Amato, hasn’t had to issue any public apologies. He edges close to the boundaries of acceptability but is wary of offending mass tastes. The Dancing Itos, as well as the look-alikes of Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran and others, are funny, Leno says, for the reason the Keystone Kops were funny.

“That’s sort of the classic comedy form. You take a figure of authority and have fun with it. . . . To me, what we’re making fun of is high-priced lawyers, media hype, a justice system that doesn’t seem to please anybody no matter what they do, police making mistakes, lawyers making mistakes. . . .


“We’ve never mentioned Nicole Brown. We’ve never mentioned Ron Goldman. We’ve barely mentioned murder,” he explains. “You will say, ‘at the crime scene,’ or ‘the night the crime happened.’ ” The M-word makes an audience uncomfortable.

He acknowledges that at least one sketch went awry. It was a takeoff on “The Brady Bunch” called “The O.J. Bunch” (“with Rosa Lopez as Alice!”). Mom was planning Marcia’s birthday party, and Judge Ito, imitating the envious middle sister Jan, issued her famous whine: “It’s always Marcia! Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!!!” Johnnie Cochran was helping in the kitchen.

The audience was laughing until a surprise guest showed up--an O.J. look-alike carrying a birthday cake. Suddenly, what laughter there was sounded nervous.

“Over the top,” Leno agreed. “You know, as soon as I saw the guy that looked like O.J., I went, no, too close, and I realized, let’s not do this again . . .

“I let myself get talked into that one and I realized that was a mistake.”


Yes, it’s a wonder what a double murder can do for ratings, though NBC’s publicists understandably balk at this interpretation. “The Tonight Show,” they suggest, has prospered because of a ripple effect from such NBC hits as “ER” and “Friends,” and because Jay has banished Johnny’s ghost and made the program truly his, with a more intimate set and his own trademark gags.

Perhaps. But then again, there is no running gag like the Simpson case--able to produce more than 20 laughs in one show alone. Little wonder that NBC often promotes “The Tonight Show” with a teaser from that night’s upcoming O.J. bit. My mother has stayed up past her bedtime. “I love the Dancing Itos,” she explains. And meanwhile, the look-alikes have inspired loads of the “free media” that PR folks love.


Tastefully done, there’s nothing wrong with such humor. Ask a psychiatrist: Laughter is therapeutic. Jay’s ratings are up simply because he’s filling a need, especially in L.A. Night after night, we endure the local news, and then we crave something funny.