AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Jay Leno was in his element - pacing the stage, running his hand through his hair and launching joke after joke to the delight of the audience.
It was something he had done in clubs and other venues across the nation thousands of times before. But this was no ordinary show for the "Tonight Show" host. After entertaining the crowd, Leno asked that the house lights be brought up and he spoke not as a comic, but as a concerned citizen and a friend.
"It's been a privilege to come here and talk to you," he said.
Those words ended Leno's gig Tuesday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills, which he put on at no cost to the capacity crowd. Tickets and parking were free.
The NBC late-night star, an avid car collector whose love of autos has brought him to Detroit from time to time, said he wanted to do some good for an area struggling with a high jobless rate and imploding auto industry. Michigan's unemployment rate was at 12 per cent in February, the highest in the nation.
"These are the hardest-working people in the world, and I think they're getting screwed," Leno told reporters before the show. "And it doesn't seem fair."
He initially only planned a single show, but heavy demand prompted organizers to add a Wednesday night performance of what was being billed as "Jay's Comedy Stimulus Plan." In all, there will be 30,000 tickets distributed.
The NBA's Detroit Pistons donated their home for the event.
A surprise guest introduced Leno, Detroit's own Kid Rock, whose appearance on stage elicited a loud response from the Palace crowd.
"What a great night for the state of Michigan and the people of Detroit," said the man born Robert Ritchie.
He introduced Leno, who bounded on stage and embraced the rocker. Leno failed on several occasions to get his set started, because the roar of the crowd and a chant of "Thank you, Jay!" drowned out his words.
He eventually was able to run through his routine, riffing on current events, celebrities, relationships and politics.
Ever the car nut, Leno also sprinkled in a few auto-themed cracks, including making fun of the Smart car and yuppie couples who buy Lexuses for each other at Christmas.
He got a lot of laughs when he introduced the story of efforts to build a car that runs on urine.
"How are you gonna fill that tank," he joked. "Most men can't even hit the bowl."
When the jokes had run their course, the lights came up and Leno spoke from his heart.
"How many union people we got here?" he asked.
Many in the audience clapped and yelled.
"I want to thank you," Leno said. "You guys created the middle class."
The show was for "anyone out of work in Detroit," Leno had said. "The idea is: 'Come on down. Forget your troubles" and laugh a little bit.
And people did.
Attendees lined up more than three hours ahead of time and stood outside the Palace in long lines as the wind whipped snow flurries all around them.
Al Opipari woke up at 5 a.m. and was in line at 6 a.m. last month when the tickets became available, "and still I was 300th in line," he said Tuesday before filing into another line to enter the building.
"I think it's a great thing he's doing to give us a little happiness for one evening and allow us to forget everything that's going on," said the 48-year-old Warren resident who lost his job at Dish Network six months ago.
Ted Petrylak said he hoped others in Hollywood will follow Leno's lead and give back to those hurting in the down economy.
"I wish more entertainers were like him and would do something like this," said Petrylak, a 71-year-old retired postal supervisor from Sterling Heights.
Leno spent part of the day visiting with officials from General Motors Corp. and got to drive the Chevrolet Volt, GM's rechargeable electric car. He's scheduled to visit Ford Motor Co. on Wednesday.
Leno, who recently bought a Chevrolet Corvette and a Dodge Challenger, said he's "a rich guy" and could buy any car he wanted, but chose to buy the two American vehicles because he likes them and they're "world-class" products.
While Leno has a soft spot for Detroit and its work force, these free shows are not his first.
He played a number of gigs in Las Vegas after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and charged no admission fee, except that he urged concertgoers to tip their servers, who were hurting at the time because of travel cutbacks. Leno also performed for unemployed steelworkers in Pittsburgh for no charge.
This week's complimentary comedy performances have not been without controversy.
Some members of the Detroit City Council have been critical of Leno's decision to perform in the suburbs rather than in the city. Councilwoman and Motown star Martha Reeves has said Leno told her he would consider a benefit in Detroit later in the year.
Leno on Tuesday couldn't resist joking about the location flap.
"Thank you Detroit," he said to start the show. "Oops! I meant Auburn Hills. I am SO sorry!"
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