As the curtain pulls back this evening for Jay Leno's return to the Tonight Show, he'll be facing a very skeptical public. In all the recent late-night machinations, Conan O'Brien emerged as the ousted hero, while Leno was the glad-handing, faux-innocent villain. In order to not forever be tainted as the man who crushed a redheaded dream, he needs to work on his image right from tonight's very first joke. Is there one ameliorating gag that can possibly start to win back public opinion? A Tiger Woods one-liner certainly won't do the trick; he needs something that blends humor, biting self-awareness, and a hint of darkness to show that he learned a little something from Conan's edgier example. So, because we are the forgiving type who only want the best from late night, we posed this question to New York's comedians: “If you were Jay Leno, what would be the one joke that you would tell that could possibly get people to forgive you for what happened?” A sampling:
• “Ladies and gentlemen, the only reason you see me standing here is I was NBC's Plan B. Plan A involved the corpse of Johnny Carson and a lightning bolt.” —Jay Black
• “We've decided to start fresh at the Tonight Show, so we've added some new segments: 'In the Year 4000,' 'Jay's Book Club,' and 'Top Eleven Lists.'" —Veronica Mosey
• "Remember when the Taliban was overthrown, but then they came back into power again? Hi, I'm Jay." —Tom Cotter
• "Me going back to the Tonight Show is like saying, 'Check the prostate again, Doc, and this time have some fun with it!'" —Chip Hirschfield
• “The New York Times asked people to send in their joke ideas, jokes, or lines that they'd tell, if they were me, that could possibly get people back in my corner. I sent in four pages. It all got rejected.” —Yes, Jackie "the Joke Man" Martling
It was a fine exercise, but we have to wonder: Is there anything Leno can do to salvage his image?