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Jay Leno goes with the flow


"Look, there's Jay Leno!"

"Wow, it really is Jay Leno!" "Oh my god, it's Jay Leno! Who's Jay Leno?"

The excited, somewhat confused little girl was just about the only one at the National Aquarium yesterday morning who didn't know why everyone was milling around the jut-jawed guy with the gray-streaked hair, blue jeans and rose-colored shirt.

Mr. Leno, probably anxious for new material now that the O. J. Simpson trial is over, spent four hours at the aquarium yesterday, shooting a bunch of sight gags that should air on NBC's "Tonight Show" sometime next week. Although his visit had been planned well in advance, aquarium visitors were caught unawares by the camera crews, spotlights and entourage that accompanied the comedian.

"I looked and I turned around and said to my friend, 'It's Jay Leno,' " said a startled Marion Moulden, who was visiting from Shrewsbury, Pa. "I didn't get an autograph, he just shook my hand. But that was enough."

Tune in next week, and you should see a three-minute segment of Jay bopping through the aquarium and seeing all sorts of odd creatures. Without giving away any punch lines, his props included a picture of Sen. Bob Dole, a live blue crab, a giant plush eel, a dead car battery, a tank full of lawyers, a can of Spam and a huge plastic lobster.

"I like going out and taking my act on the road," said Mr. Leno, whose ratings have increased steadily since his set was re-designed to bring him closer to the studio audience -- an arrangement that recalls his comedy-club roots. Taking cameras the road seems the next logical step, a way to bring him closer to people all over the country, not just in Los Angeles.

"People like to see their town," he said, pausing to chat while his staff set up a shot involving the shark tank and a bunch of professional-looking types in suits and goggles. "When you just stay in Hollywood, you get a real jaded view of how people think."

It may be hard to gauge exactly what his audience thinks, but the people at the aquarium yesterday thought he was pretty cool.

"I didn't even see him. She spotted him," said Jill McPartland, 32, pointing to her mom, Rosemary. Describing herself as a "big fan," Ms. McPartland not only got Mr. Leno to pose for a photo with her mom, but persuaded a security guard to snap a picture of the three of them together.

Eminently approachable, Mr. Leno seemed to enjoy chatting up the tourists, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Despite a tight scheduled that included a cameo on an episode of "Homicide" being filmed in Fell's Point, he cashed in on every opportunity to step outside the television spotlight and talk to people.

That included an encounter with a German tourist who told the comic, in broken, heavily accented English, "You make me crazy. But sometimes, I like it."

"I wasn't really sure what that means," Mr. Leno said with a laugh.

Pretty much anyone who wanted to was able have a brief encounter with the star -- a handshake, maybe a wave, a hearty "Howyadoin?" But no one got closer to Mr. Leno than Ian Nugent, a 10-year-old visiting the aquarium from Long Island with his father and two brothers.

As one of the first kids to come through the aquarium and happen upon the crew, young Ian was tapped to help Mr. Leno with a bit involving a dry fountain pen and a rubber octopus. Soon, his single line of dialogue -- "Mr. Leno, can I have your autograph?" -- will be heard by millions of people.

Ian, wearing a blue New York Giants sweatshirt and gray-brown Los Angeles Lakers cap, was hardly a walking advertisement for Baltimore. But he handled his line well, looked astonished when the director asked him to look astonished, and seemed unimpressed with all the hoopla.

"It wasn't hard," he said of his acting debut.

His father was more excited. Leave it to dad to understand the career possibilities.

"They're going to be stars, all three of them," a beaming Robert Nugent joked, gesturing toward his sons. "I want to retire."

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