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Shales on TV Live: Jay Leno's return to latenight, 'Southland,' more

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV columnist
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, March 2 at noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Tom Shales: Greetings all. Bad news for Jay Leno fresh to us from ace reporter Emily Yahr in TV Team News Central. PRELIMINARY repeat preliminary ratings show Leno returning with pretty paltry numbers last night -- DOWN 24 per cent from Conan's debut night as Tonight Show host, DOWN 55 per cent from figures for Leno's first night in Prime Time.

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Washington, D.C.: I really had no intention of watching Leno's return, but that's where the Olympians headed this week. I don't see them on anyone else's schedule. Is that an NBC-exclusive right since they broadcast the Olympics? Bogus them holding us Olympic-addicted viewers hostage, but a brilliant plan by NBC to boost Leno's return.

Tom Shales: I thought Letterman landed an Olympian or two. Maybe that was last week. But as another reader points out in an email coming up, Bill Murray as a faux-lympian (ouch) was a lot more entertaining than the real thing, Ms. Vonn with Leno. Poor Jay never came up with an original, arresting question in his life with possible exception of What Were You Thinking to Hugh Grant......

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Seattle, Wash.: I know you consider Leno tired and outdated, but I thought he came back strong last night. He poked fun at his disastrous run without dwelling on it, celebrated coming back but didn't criticize his predecessor, had funny references to Dave and Oprah. Were some of his jokes corny? Sure. Was every house visit to look at desks side- splitting? No. But he brought an impressive number of stars and entertainers into people's homes. Part of the fun of watching was imagining what it must have been like for those people while Jay pretended to do a show. His Wizard of Oz bit was top notch, though I thought he could have milked it for even more laughs. Can Jay keep this up? That remains to be seen.

Tom Shales: "That remains to be seen"??? First rule of journalism: Never say that. EVERYTHING remains to be seen. But I don't mean to pick on you -- except that I disagree with everything you say. And I actually am a fan of Jay's monologues, but I thought he was really off-the-beat last night. He seemed uneasy, at least for the first three minutes or so. Then his helium supercharger kicked in, or whatever, and he snapped back to snappy form. That set is from his prime-time show; it looks like the library at Henry Higgins' house!

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the rumor that Conan O'Brien might take his show on the road? Do you think it's a prelude to a new TV experiment for him?

Tom Shales: Maybe he's recalling the success Leno had on the road for all those years -- and Jay made sure to visit NBC affiliates in the towns he played with his stand-up comedy act, as is well-known by now. Dontcha think Conan, for all his virtues, NEEDS HELP with his stand-up? Every joke seems to have the same structure. He seems too pleased with himself while delivering the goods. He needs to tone down the grinny, laughing demeanor -- I had the uneasy feeling he was going to leap out of the screen and slap me if I didn't laugh. (during his 7-months with the Tonight show)

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Bethesda, Md.: Inquiring minds want to know -- do you think it is possible that Jay will be pulled from NBC altogether? I know his contract is ironclad and made of steel, but seriously, those ratings numbers are crazy!

Tom Shales: Remember please that the final numbers may differ. And nothing against Jamie Foxx, he was a great and much-needed source of energy last night, but he's not the biggest guest in the world; I expected a bit more starpower upon Leno's return. Maybe he's being shunned in Hollywood; after all, this is the second time in his career that he has looked like a big fat bast**d. (that's "basted," like a turkey)

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Southland: I love this show -- I watched all of the episodes last spring when NBC broadcast them and I watched them again this winter on TNT. There's something about the tone and pacing that makes the show very compelling -- and love that introductory music! Do you know if TNT has ordered any new episodes or is just planning to show the ones made for NBC when it planned to air the series last fall?

washingtonpost.com: Tom Shales hails 'Southland' as 'next big step' for cop shows (Post, March 2)

Tom Shales: I'm SO glad you like the show. I couldnt get an answer on how many episodes were already in the can when TNT picked up the show - the first two or three clearly were made for NBC. And then I wonder if the TNT contract slashes the show's budget and if that will be reflect in what we see on the air. If TNT wants to compete with the big boys, it has to spend enough of Ted Turner's money. (Ted Turner - yech). Oh so the answer is a friendly "beats me." We WILL look into it, however.......

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Wilkes Barre, Pa.: The series finale of Nip/Tuck is tomorrow and as a longtime fan, I am relieved. Do you think that the show jumped the shark seasons ago?

Tom Shales: I'm not the one to ask because for me, it jumped the shark on opening night. Wasn't the show for me -- the sex and naughty-talk seemed too self-congratulatory ("look what we can get away with on cable! Wheeeeee!"). But I recognize it had a lot of appeal for a great many people. I gather though that even though you're a fan, you wouldn't be all that sorry to see it pack up its scalpels and go away....

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Omaha, Neb.: Even though I'm from middle America, I agree with you that Leno, though he appears to be working very hard, is generally tired and predictable. He's kind of like our Bob Hope. However, don't you think Leno's show was pretty strong last night? I don't think he can keep it up, but his comeback show was pretty good in my view. Would you agree?

Tom Shales: Would I agree? No. I honestly didn't see every minute, as my crummy cable system doesn't work, DVR-wise, and I had to switch back-and-forth (imagine - ME, the dean! or - maybe the provost? - of American television critics having to SWITCH BACK AND FORTH!) ... and since Letterman was funnier, I watched more Dave than Jay. Can you beLIEVE we are still all talking about this?! By the way, Jay has Sarah Palin tonight, if you care.

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Betty White fan: First SNL had a BW reference in the "Flags of the World" Digital Short this past weekend, now she pops up in Leno's opening skit last night. Any word on whether she'll get to host SNL this season, or is NBC just toying with us? I've read rumors that NBC might team her with some other older female comics, but I want a whole show of Betty White hosting, darn it! Maybe to spare her too much fatigue, SNL could have her in a few more SNL Digital Shorts than usual?

Tom Shales: I am so happy to have this Winter of our Betty White -- a White Christmas and more. Ahem. I have loved her through three or four hit shows. Can you imagine? She is a living history of television. And she was so squeaky-clean for so many years that casting her as bitchy on Mary Tyler Moore was a stroke of genius. Now all she has to do is say a four-letter word and it seems hilarious - not that she NEEDS to say one. But as host of SNL? It really is physically demanding, being ripped out of one outfit and leaping into another for the next sketch. Lorne Michaels feared Desi Arnaz would have a heart attack on the air when Desi went a bit overboard pounding out Babaloo on the Conga drum..

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Anonymous: I've always admired your your way with words, which often brought smiles on my face even when I was in the foulest of moods. Over the years more often than not I shared your opinions and watched the shows based on your reviews. (Are you expecting a big fat "BUT..." at this point? lol)

This comment refers to your last week's chat. (Sorry, I was too late to post.) I was completely and totally floored when in response to a chatter's question you admitted that you did not remember the names of the shows you liked. How refreshing! An honest chat host. Most of your colleagues empowered by ability to post or not to post usually ignore questions they don't have answers for. Yes, I will be watching Southland tonight.

Tom Shales: Thank you very much, particularly for helping me turn a big problem into a virtue -- I'm not sure we've been successful. Over the years when people asked me "What's on good tonight?" I'd kinda snap "How the hell should I know?" because I was always watching next week's shows at that moment. And I'm not a rolling log, as they call it, who displays the schedules ... But when you've been doing this for 30+ years, titles like "Modern Family," and "Meet the Family," and "Here's the Family" and "Up the Family," they all blur together. You're very kind, anyway. And thanks for withholding your "but." So to speak.

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Evanston, Ill.: Wait a sec, is Southland that show with the pretty boy from "The O.C."?

I saw the pilot. The filming was kinda cool, but didn't really like it too much.

Tom Shales: Kinda cool, well yes. You might want to give it another try tonight - just one more? I was thoroughly caught up in it. A scene where people almost riot over an arrest had me on the edge of the couch for sure, partly for its scary believability. I do think the grittiness of the show is refreshing after all those slickety-slick CSI shows. TV is big enough for both kinds.......Dear Friends, a question about Betty White, and my unabashed love letter to her in response, was accidentally deleted when a certain someone who shall not be named (hint: he's eating M&M's right now) pushed the wrong button. Apologies all around.

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Petaluma, Calif.: Hi Tom -- I know you are not a big Jon Stewart fan. Do you like Stephen Colbert? I think is faux interviews with congresspersons are hilarious. Thanks.

Tom Shales: Hello Petaluma! Love those California town names. How are things in Azusa, Cahuenga and KOOK-amunga?!? Actually, I've got the middle one wrong. I'm (mis)quoting what a train conductor would call out on the old Jack Benny Show. Hilarious at the time -- honest! Oh gee, what was the question. Steve Colbert - yes very very funny. Not smug like Stewart. Did you also see Colbert's Christmas special, aired in December for the 2nd (annual) time? Very funny and satiric.

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USA: It is a strange thing that NBC's sister network, USA, has a bunch of really good, entertaining and all the Peacock has is "Chuck." I love "White Collar"!

Tom Shales: I guess White Collar wouldnt fit with NBC's current slogan "More colorful." Anybody know what the heck that MEANS, by the way??? I think boasting about the number of shows in color is just a wee little bit out-dated by now, wouldn't you, especially with HD the big thing? "More colorful" -- hmmmm. Well as you say, NBC owns USA so maybe they deserve the credit. Apparently NBC boss Jeff Zucker thinks the network's future is as a kind of service-oriented entity, news and information only, with entertainment and scripted shows dying out. And to make his prognosis valid, he's killing them off. With Leno out of the prime-time picture, and at least one "Law & Order" back, things are bound to improve EVEN AT NBC......

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Fairbanks, Alaska: This is a weird intersection of entertainment and politics with Mitt Romney on David Letterman's show (the one I'm going to watch) while Sarah Palin is going to be on Jay Leno's show.

If her term as governor held any signs, Palin will quit the interview before it's scheduled to finish. (Guess what Palinites, a joke at her expense doesn't make her any less or more qualified).

Tom Shales: Of course entertainment and politics have been intersecting on TV for a long long time now. It is odd that Dave really seems to hate Sarah Palin (for many nights running, Dave had a feature on "things more fun than reading Sarah Palin's book" and these included getting your head knocked off, stuff like that, illustrated with clips from gory movies). MEanwhile Jay is such a Republican suck-up that he didn't even start doing Bush jokes until Bush was out of office (not really tough Bush jokes anyway). Then again, Dave can hardly be said to be in Mitt's pocket (or in Mitt's mits???) -- or in anybody's for that matter....

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Takoma Park, Md.: What a Jack Benny coincidence! I think that the stations were usually Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuc- (wait for it) amonga. And I finally figured out who the Simpsons clerk character was emulating when I got to see a Jack Benny episode on Sunday with Frank "Yesssssss!" Nelson besting Raymond Burr's Perry Mason in a courtroom scene.

Tom Shales: Ah yes, you got the towns right. I KNEW someone would, as always, come to the rescue. I wish I had prizes to give away. (or keep, come to think of it). That was a great Jack Benny episode -- I saw it somewhere else a few years ago. Which leads me to ask, Who's showing Jack Benny shows now? I get genuinely sad when I think of the generations born and to come who won't know who Jack Benny was....

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Washington, D.C.: Um, according to this Leno destroyed Letterman last night. Not sure why that is bad news for Leno.....

Leno crushes Letterman

Tom Shales: According to "this" what? He would be EXPECTED to beat Letterman, honestly. There was a great deal of hoopla surrounding Jay's return, lots of public curiosity, and of course all those promos during the Olympics. (Even Dave may have helped Jay with that already legendary Super Bowl promo starring Dave, Opray and Jay. ). Ratings are relative. And they won't really be very revealing on this situation until things settle down a bit.......

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Local news WRC: The old order is changing -- goodbye to Bob Ryan! What is the status of Vance and Gentzler? If the front office suits are trying to save money can we please get rid of Pat Collins?

Tom Shales: I don't really cover the local stuff but do try to keep up. I honestly had no idea that Bob Ryan was so HOT ! Coulda knocked me over with a croissant. I think the whole local scene is pretty dull compared to the wackier characters in this market years ago. I like Jim Vance but he seems so tired of the routine; I feel like he wants very much to retire. Doreen leaves me cold. So much for the temperatures of local news personalities....

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Tom -- Thanks for taking questions. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on NBC's ridiculous (at least I thought so) decision to cut away from live coverage of the closing ceremony to show an episode of The Marriage Ref, which it hawked ceaselessly throughout the two weeks of the games, then awkwardly return an hour later when most of us were in our beds.

Tom Shales: That was truly stupid. But they were committed and NBC execs would have had some furiously angry big shots on the phone the next day if they'd ditched "Ref" or shown it at, like, 2 a.m. (and even 2 a.m. is too good for it, if you ask me -- not that I saw the WHOLE thing). I agree that promos, when hideously overdone, can make a viewer sick of a show even before it premieres. And couldn't they have done one with Seinfeld BEING funny instead of just laughing like a donkey at Alec Baldwin?

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Anonymous: How was your all-time favorite character on "Law and Order"?

I'm tied between Lennie Briscoe and Claire Kincaid.

Tom Shales: I don't know the character names but the choice is

so very very easy and you may have listed him by his

character name: Jerry Orbach, God rest his soul.

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Annapolis, Md.: Bob Ryan certainly does not look 67.

Tom Shales: No and neither do I. But then I'm FORTY-seven. Or so-- NEXT QUESTION!!! NEXT QUESTION PLEASE!!!!

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Pompano Beach, Fla.: The most memorable skit from one of Jack Benny's programs was the time Mel Blanc did the "Sy, si" routine. I saw it the other night on PBS and after all these years and having seen it at least 100 times, it still makes me laugh out loud.

Tom Shales: Yes, that one got trotted out several times but was always funny -- the one-word answers from Blanc using a Mexican accent -- "See," "Sue," "Si," etc. There was a lovely moment when Jack had Giselle MacKenzie on his show -- and made her a star overnight -- and played a violin duet with her -- "Getting to Know You." She would do all these complex little flourishes and improvisations while Benny stuck to the melody, getting more and more jealous as the song went along -- finally attempting a clunky riff himself and shouting, "Don't mess with me, Sister!" Nobody could make petty envy funnier.

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Gallery Place, D.C.: I was watching some old movies on TCM for the Oscars and I was really disturbed by the beginning of The Philadelphia Story. Katharine Hepburn is throwing all of Cary Grant's stuff out of their house (the divorce scene two years before the movie takes place) and she breaks his golf club. Right before he turns to go he takes Katherine Hepburn's face in his hand and slams her down on the ground in a really violent way, super fast. Then they cut to Katharine Hepburn on the ground and she kind of shakes it off. I watched that part a few times (thanks TiVo) but it was so weird. Was that typical of 1940s movies (violent aggression towards women just laughed off). I know it wasn't exactly a politically correct time, but I was really surprised by the slam to the ground.

Tom Shales: You couldn't do it now. But think about it -- he makes a fist as if to strike her, which would have been much worse. The hand-to-the-face-and-push is pretty benign really. She sort of swoons backwards. Look, if Hepburn had no problem with it, why dig it up to criticize now?

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Methuen, Mass.: Waaay off the subject. Are any channels (say, TV Land) that you know of ever planning to show "Route 66" (the original, not the execrable Dan Cortese vehicle)? Or, is this show available on DVD?

Tom Shales: No plans to air it so far as I know. I think eventually there will be more cable channels specializing in "classic" programming than there are now - I'd like to run one of them myself, really. But i feel I've seen "Route 66" available on DVD. Check Amazon or Critic's Choice. They seem to have huge stockpiles of old TV shows, including many a lot less interesting than Route 66........Great

Nelson Riddle (I think) theme song, too...

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re: Hideously Overdone Promos: Definitely have to nominate Parenthood for Hideously Overdone Promo of 2010.

The constant looping of the same handful of commercials for that show -- and its annoying music -- has driven me away from the show.

Based on the Post's review of the recycled program, that might not be a bad thing.

Tom Shales: Didn't read the review but as you say, another case of promos tending to alienate rather than titillate.....

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Jerry Orbach: Yes, he played Lennie Brisco, the cop who never saw a corpse that failed to inspire a chain of wisecracks. I kept waiting for him to burst into one of his Broadway medleys at a mass homicide scene.

Tom Shales: Are you mocking him, perchance? Probably not. I saw him in "Promises, Promises." Good voice. Of course he's immortal for introducing "Try to Remember" in "The Fantasticks." You know: Try to remember the kind of September when life was [something] and oh so mellow." My brain is shutting down just like Hal the Computer's did in "2001: A space Odyssey." But Hal knew more. Oh I guess the correct spelling is HAL - it was an acronym......

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Cape Cod, Mass.: Which was a bigger failure Leno in primetime or "Cop Rock"?

Tom Shales: Ha ha ha! Yes I omitted "Cop Rock" from the great Cop Shows. I still remember that jury standing up to sing

"He's guilty, guilty, guilty" (but I can't remember what

they rhymed with "guilty"). But Leno also the smaller

failure because his show cost much less to make - at

least, per episode.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, I love your chats, but I'm only 30 and don't know who half the people you discuss are. Jack Benny? Was he a friend of George and Gracie or something? I like it when you discuss TV shows that began after the Reagan administration. And yeah, Jerry Orbach = Lennie Briscoe, -sniff.-

Tom Shales: Yes, I'm sorry. The other day I made a reference to Red Skelton laughing at his own jokes. I could sense my editors shuddering. I could have used any number of more recent examples. But we're all victims of our own memories. And

I will try to be more contemporary. On the other hand, boomers were the biggest generation ever in the country's history and a lot of us, believe it or not (and by, cracky!) are still around. Limping but alive......

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Methuen, Mass.: Thanks (re: Route 66). You're right about the theme music, too.

BTW, what do you thing will be the next "The Wire"? I caught the premiere of "Southland" a while back, it seems, and was underwhelmed. And I feel like "Law and Order" has run its course.

Any opinion on FX's "Justified"?

Tom Shales: Well funny you should mention Southland up there in Methuen, because I reviewed its return in today's paper - and it was a rave. Maybe it's been so long since I saw a decent drama series that I was excessively impressed -but please tune in and give it a shot. And thanks....

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Ballston, Va.: I just want to say that I grew up taping the Letterman show, watching "The Tonight Show" every Friday, and then Letterman after it expanded to Friday nights. I watched "Saturday Night Live" every Saturday.

In college, I watched Arsenio Hall, and Letterman, of course, many nights a week, even when I had an early class the next morning.

After college, I kept watching late-night TV while working menial jobs and making ends meet.

When I was 29, I got married and started going to bed at 10 p.m. I've never looked back, and have no regrets. I NEVER see late-night TV, and can't imagine being functional during the day if I did.

In sum, I read about the late-night wars with interest, but wonder who watches them, besides TV critics paid to watch those shows and retirees who have no place to be early the next morning.

I wish I had a dog in the fight, but circumstances just don't allow for the watching of late-night TV any longer.

Thanks for letting me represent the worker bees and early-to-bed crowd.

Tom Shales: Thank YOU for representing.

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Alexandria, Va.: Has the future of "Men of a Certain Age" been announced yet? I really enjoyed the ten (?)- episode story arc that was wrapped up neatly in the finale, but I'd like to see more. Excellent writing and acting!

Tom Shales: Now come on - is this a joke? We get this question EVERY WEEK. But then maybe we never answer it! The show IS coming back for another season, did VERY WELL for Turner and sorry I don't have the date handy - maybe March? (how's that for definitive?)

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Minneapolis, Minn.: As a fan of the Golden Age of Television, may I ask you to hearken back to another ancient black-and-white TV show of the 1950s -- "The Adventures of Robin Hood," the British import starring Richard Greene as Robin, Bernadette O'Farrell (and later Patricia Driscoll) as Lady Marian Fitzwalter, Archie Duncan as Little John, and Alan Wheatley (later of "Doctor Who") as the Sheriff of Nottingham?

I LOVED that show, first as a small child when it aired on primetime CBS (I believe), and then later in syndication. Now the whole series is available on DVD, pretty well restored. It is fascinating to see British actors who later became famous for other roles (like Paul Eddington, in "Good Neighbours" and "Yes, Minister"; Leo McKern in "Rumpole of the Bailey"; and even Edward Mulhare, the Captain from "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," as well as many others). And of course there was the iconic theme song, which was parodied by Monty Python in the "Dennis Moore" sketch.

Plus, I learned not too long ago that many of the scripts were written by blacklisted American authors under pseudonyms, which may account for some of the more "subversive" elements of the plots.

It's really a revelation to watch the shows today. The production values are a little sketchy, but I think the series stands up well.

Tom Shales: We're running out of time but thank you and the old

Robin Hood with Richard Greene is DEFINITELY available

on DVD.....Beware: sometimes I look up an old favorite,

revisit it, and wonder what the heck was WRONG with

me at the time - that I once loved it.....

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Baltimore, Md.: Your Seinfeld review: Glad to see your piece about Seinfeld in the Post yesterday. What amazes me about him is that he has nearly as much money as Oprah, yet he seriously pursues his standup career and does it at a high level. I have marveled how he studiously avoids "working blue" as the old cliche has it, yet in no way is his material tame. I would have loved to hear his take on ED medications, if only because I can't help laughing at those commercial disclaimers that say, "If you experience any sudden decrease or loss of hearing or vision while taking XXXX, call your doctor."

In other words, they are saying their product might render me deaf and/or blind!

Tom Shales: Jerry was very funny on the subject of ED remedies, hard to quote in a family newspaper yet definitely NOT "dirty." I share your sense of wonderment: WHY does this man keep working? I don't think it's for the money.......

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Washington, D.C. : Jerry Ohrbach: He was also Billy Flynn in the original production of Chicago that did not run too long because it was considered too "dark." He also famously said that, after being on Law and Order, he couldn't walk around the streets of New York without cop cars stopping and offering to give him a ride wherever he was going.

Tom Shales: Great anecdote and good note to end on. We didn't do the olympics! Oh well ... Thank you, thank you, very much and good night..

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