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Jay Leno brings comic relief to battered Motown

 Comedian Jay Leno hosts the 30th Carousel of Hope gala in Beverly Hills, California October 25, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni - Reuters
Comedian Jay Leno hosts the 30th Carousel of Hope gala in Beverly Hills, California October 25, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
— image credit: Reuters

By David Bailey

DETROIT (Reuters) - In a nod to the gloomy economy, late-night comedian Jay Leno hosted a show on Tuesday to lift the battered spirits of Detroit residents facing steep unemployment and a faltering auto industry.

The host of NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," a celebrated car buff, presented a "comedy stimulus plan" to a packed house at a suburban Detroit arena that is home to the Detroit Pistons professional basketball team.

"The idea is just come on down, hopefully forget your troubles for a while, other people are in the same boat as you are and maybe take some of the weight off, that's all," Leno told reporters beforehand.

Introduced by hometown hero Kid Rock, Leno launched into an 80-minute monologue aimed at anyone and anything from U.S. presidents to air travel and life in Los Angeles.

He riffed on cars, the price of gasoline and ads for brands like Jaguar and Lexus, but steered clear of Detroit, or the struggling U.S. carmakers, as a butt of his jokes.

Leno thanked union members, whose parents and grandparents "created the middle class in America" and told a roaring audience "God bless Detroit."

"It's bad, but it's not that bad. Things will turn around, they have before." he said.

The arena was set up for about 15,000 seats, and all the tickets were distributed for shows on Tuesday and Wednesday. Parking and soft drinks were free and other items were discounted as sponsors chipped in to offset the costs.

Leno has done other shows of this kind in Las Vegas and Pennsylvania.

AUTO CITY HIT HARD

Detroit was hard hit by the auto industry's troubles and crumbling housing prices even before the latest economic downturn that has pushed U.S. unemployment to 25-year highs.

Michigan's unemployment rate was 12 percent in February, compared with what was a 25-year high 8.1 percent U.S. rate. Rates are much higher in some areas. In Detroit, the jobless rate hit an unadjusted 22.8 percent in February.

Leno's show was planned long before President Barack Obama rejected turnaround plans from General Motors Corp and Chrysler at the end of March.

Obama's autos task force forced out GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner, told GM to cut deeper and move faster, and ordered Chrysler, 80 percent controlled by Cerberus Capital Management, to consummate a merger with Italy's Fiat SpA within a month.

"I think you will see a new resurgence," Leno told reporters. "I think you will see these companies coming back. It's not new. These companies have been in trouble before."

He said he added a new Chevrolet Corvette and a new Dodge Challenger muscle car to his collection this year. He also said the new Ford Motor Co Shelby "looks pretty nice."

The comedian has not hesitated to direct barbs at U.S. automakers for "bad cars" produced in the past, but said engineering, handling and braking on recent cars demonstrated quality. He does not favor 'buy American' type pledges.

"I think you should buy it because you want to and because it is as good a product," Leno said. "I don't think you should buy it because you feel sorry for some situation."

Thousands of fans waited patiently to see the show, which Leno said was aimed at cheering up anyone down on their luck.

"We are just here for a very good time," said Al Held, who made the trip to Michigan from Indianapolis and said that business was down dramatically in recent months.

"It is just a chance to forget about that for a couple of hours, and freeze," he said as he waited outside the arena.

A.J. Frantz of Mount Clemens said he just wanted to get back to driving a truck. "No matter how hard it gets, I'm going to stay right here in Michigan," he said. "I'm a pure 100 percent optimist, you've got to love life."

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