WILMINGTON, Ohio – In a region stung by layoffs and the pullout of a major employer, comedian Jay Leno was good for a few laughs.
The host of "The Tonight Show" put on a free stand-up performance Sunday for 4,000 people as part of his "Comedy Stimulus" tour.
"I don't think Jay Leno can do anything about our local economy or the situation here, but at least he empathizes with us," said John Porter, of Wilmington. "He realizes there is something big going on here and it could get a lot bigger."
Wilmington, a city of about 12,000 residents, has drawn national attention as a vivid example of the economic struggles of small U.S. communities during the recession. The main presidential candidates discussed its plight last year.
About 8,000 workers were employed at the Wilmington Air Park a year ago when delivery company DHL Express announced it was pulling out, and about 3,500 remain. Wilmington Mayor David Raizk says at least half of them will lose their jobs when DHL leaves this summer.
Leno, who also has performed free comedy concerts in the recession-wracked Detroit area, spent 75 minutes delivering jokes at the Roberts Centre. He drew cheers from the crowd as he wrapped up the show, the first of two scheduled, saying he was just trying to get some laughs and cheer people up.
"We're all brothers and sisters," he said.
Leno's performance drew rave reviews from the people who waited in line for hours to see him.
"I really appreciate Jay coming. This was fabulous, absolutely fabulous," said Lora Walker, who was laid off from ABX Air at the air park in December after working there seven years. "It's keeping the positive attitude. You have to stay positive and look at the bright side of everything that's happening. If you sit around all gloom and doom, you're not going to move forward."
Dan Stewart, who works for DHL, called the show "fantastic."
"I don't see how anybody can stand up there and just go so fast and spontaneously in that amount of time without hardly catching his breath," Stewart said of Leno.
Leno made no specific mention of Wilmington and the layoffs during the show. He quickly launched into his stand-up routine, joking about President Barack Obama, sex, marriage, movies, family and other topics at a machine-gun clip.
On new medical terminology such as restless-leg syndrome: "My mother used to call that tapping my foot at the dinner table."
On the notion that obesity might be caused by a virus: "Can you call in fat to work?"
On his hard-of-hearing parents watching television: "When you walk into my parents' living room, it's like a heavy-metal Matlock concert."
A little levity went a long way among people who have lost their jobs or are worried about losing them.
"We sold a lot of things off of the house in order to survive," said Walker, of Wilmington. "We sold off our horse trailer. I still have a piano for sale. We sold my husband's tools. He was a machinist. I don't have health insurance now."
Leno, during an interview between shows, said he visited Wilmington because he knew the area has suffered an economic blow and many people didn't have the money for entertainment.
"I'm not here to explain the economic situation. Everybody knows what that is," Leno said. "This is like escapism. You just kind of get out and forget your troubles for an hour and a half and have a few laughs."
Leno said that when people are in trouble, he tries to lend a helping hand.
"I think people like to know that somebody else cares about your situation, your problem," he said.
Those affected seemed to be grateful for Leno's appearance, which took their minds off an uncertain future.
"Just the fact that somebody of his stature would come to the community to do this is just a big morale boost," Stewart said. "It gives us a chance not to be worried about it for the moment."