Comedian Jay Leno delivered stinging jokes at the expense of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in his performance as host of the first Genesis Prize in a ceremony held at the Jerusalem Theater on Thursday night.
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But the men sharing the stage with him - Genesis Prize laureate Michael Bloomberg and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who presented Bloomberg with the award - escaped essentially unscathed.
The biggest laughs and applause came when Leno told the audience that: “President Obama has declared the month of May Jewish American Heritage Month. He is calling it an opportunity to renew our ‘unbreakable bond with the nation of Israel.’ And he knows it’s unbreakable because he’s been trying to break it for the last five years.”
A few minutes later, he took aim at the secretary of state. “I’ve been doing my research. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, here in Israel the most popular boys name is Noam. The least popular boys name? John Kerry.”
The Israeli targets of his jokes were relatively safe - local politicians who were already marked by scandals. Leno opened his monologue by discussing his attempt to find tickets to the event for a friend.
“When I first tried to get him tickets, they were sold out. But luckily, two tickets became available when former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he wouldn’t be using his. You guys are tough. You sentenced your former Prime Minister to six years in prison! Did you hear Olmert’s defense? Not the best strategy. He blamed the whole thing on the Jews.”
He also noted that “Israel had some great leaders, David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin. People were really touched by them. Well, of course, not as many people as were touched by former President Katsav.”
Overall, he said, “I was stunned by how many Israeli politicians are going to prison. When you ask an Israeli politician what his cell number is, it has a whole other meaning.”
Aiming at Millenials
Leno delivered his routine to a room filled with elegantly dressed men and women who came to see the first-ever Genesis Prize be awarded to Michael Bloomberg, the businessman and former mayor of New York City on Thursday by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Mayor Bloomberg has announced that he will use his $1 million prize to establish a new fellowship aimed at Millenials, called the Genesis Generation Challenge, to be operated under the auspices of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which awarded him the prize. That organization is led by a clan of extremely wealthy Eastern European Jewish businessmen, notably Mikhail Fridman, who, according to Forbes, is the second-richest man in Russia.
Bloomberg may have been the honoree, but it is Leno who has grabbed the most attention and interest in Israel. The legendary and recently retired late night talk show host touched down in Israel on Tuesday - on his first trip to the country. After stepping down from the stage of the “Tonight Show,” he’s been keeping busy with lucrative overseas gigs like this one, he said in an interview with the Associated Press upon his arrival in Jerusalem.
"Write joke. Tell joke. Get check. It's pretty simple. It's not a hard plan," he laughed.
Before the ceremony, Leno told the press that he had been sightseeing in Jerusalem during his three days in the country, including visiting the Western Wall. When asked whether he had put a note in the wall with a request to God, he shook his head no. “I didn’t want to be pushy."