Jay Leno Bombs On Stage

Tonight Show funnyman tells story about telephone shakedown by Michael Jackson's accuser

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Jay Leno Bombs On Stage

MAY 24--Despite his positioning as a crucial defense witness in the Michael Jackson case, comedian Jay Leno today fired a blank on the witness stand, testifying that he was never asked for money when contacted five years ago by the Los Angeles teenager at the center of the current child molestation prosecution.

Leno's testimony appeared to contradict statements he made earlier this year during an interview with Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department investigators. During that session, the 55-year-old comedian claimed that the accuser and his family were "sort of looking for money" and that he felt he was targeted as a prospective "mark."

Testifying as a defense witness, the "Tonight Show" host recounted for jurors how he received several voicemail messages in 2000 from the boy. Leno told jurors that the child "sounded very adult" in the messages and was "overly effusive for a 12-year-old." Leno said that seemed strange, considering he was a comedian in his fifties. "I'm not Batman," he said to laughs from the packed courtroom. At one point, Leno testified, he told an acquaintance who knew the boy, that the child "seemed a little scripted in his speech."

Leno testified that he contacted the child while he was hospitalized and spoke to him and, perhaps, his younger brother. He was not certain if he had spoken with the boy's mother. When Jackson lawyer Thomas Mesereau asked if he heard someone talking in the background, Leno said it could have been the boy's mother or a nurse.

Leno seemed more certain about the family seeking money during his interview with Santa Barbara investigators, which led Mesereau to promise in his opening statement that the star would come in to court and paint the family as grasping opportunists who sought out celebrities in shakedown gambits. The boy and his mother, Mesereau said on February 28, "called comedian Jay Leno and tried to get money from Mr. Leno. Mr. Leno has told the Santa Barbara police, 'Something was wrong. They were looking for a mark. It sounded scripted. The mother was in the background, and I terminated the conversation.'"

In his sheriff's interview, Leno said his contact with the family left him "suspicious." He added that he did not recall the telephone encounters until after the February 2003 broadcast of "Living with Michael Jackson," Martin Bashir's controversial documentary. In the program, the name of Jackson's teen accuser is mentioned and the boy, now 15, is seen resting his head on the singer's shoulder.

Leno's sworn account of the telephone contact only slightly contradicted testimony from the teenage accuser, who told the Santa Maria, California jury that he never spoke directly to the comedian. The boy testified that, while once hospitalized, he left a message on the star's answering machine. Leno testified that he thought the boy may have been "groggy" during his telephone chat, which, prosecutors could argue, explain why the boy denied ever having spoken with the late night host.

Leno's testimony in the trial's waning days was meant to underscore the defense team's central contention that the accuser and his family are scheming grifters who targeted Jackson in a multimillion-dollar shakedown bid.

However, it didn't work out that way.

When Mesereau quizzed Leno about his previous statements to sheriff's investigators, Leno said he was suspicious of the boy's contact because it did not seem like the normal behavior for a child his age. During that sheriff's session, which was tape recorded, Leno said that while he believed Jackson was guilty of child molestation, he thought to himself, "Boy, they (the accuser and his mother) finally found a mark."

While he has spent 18 months making pedophile jokes at Jackson's expense, Leno testified soberly, though he did draw laughs at certain points. When asked about the scope of his charity work, Leno said that he responded to most pleas from legitimate organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Sometimes, however, he'll get a request for a new tractor from a supposedly down-on-his luck farmer, though the letter's "return address is Brooklyn, New York."

As he left the stand, Leno made sure to mention that Renee Zellweger was appearing on the "Tonight Show" this evening. While most in the courtroom laughed at the quip, it was unclear if the defense found Leno's testimony amusing.