When a new movie comes out, it's a fully realized vision and product, and therefore easy to be consumed, talked about and critiqued. A nightly TV talk show is different. It takes time to get its legs and figure out what exactly it's going to be -- even when all of the people have done this before and merely moved to a new time slot and/or station (See: O'Brien, Conan; Letterman, David). And yet we expect -- nay, we demand -- an immediate and final judgment on a new TV talk show. Especially when it's taking up valuable primetime TV programming real estate. So. The Jay Leno Show. Meet the new Leno. Same as the old Leno. With a couple of tweaks. Are you ready for this? Ready or not, The Jay Leno Show debuted Monday night, with lots of outside expectations hyped even more by the fact that Leno already had Kanye West booked as a musical guest, and would therefore have our full attention as West could face Leno and address his behavior at Sunday night's MTV Video Music Awards.
But first. OK. What was with the muted opening theme song? Were Kevin Eubanks and "the Primetime Band" told to take their old Tonight Show theme and dial it all the way down? This theme sounds less exciting than the opening to The Doctors. Is this what we're to expect with Leno in primetime, that it's really more like Leno in daytime? The images of Leno over the decades also seems like What Would Daytime TV Do? Kinda, sorta, yeah. More on that in a minute.
But first. Leno has to come out and shake the hands of audience members. The Laying of the Leno hands. This is meant to show that he is the people's talk show host, right? Like how Ellen DeGeneres does her little dance up and down and across the audience aisles. Leno will not dance, and we will at least thank him for that. But the Laying of the Leno Hands is a carryover from Leno's Tonight Show, as is the monologue (even on opening night, it's your basic monologue; some jokes worked, some did not, and some were supplemented with lame videos -- MORE COMEDY! YOU DEMANDED IT!), and for reasons best left unexplained, Leno has decided to allow Eubanks to interrupt the monologue and participate in inane banter. Eubanks wanted to add to Leno's joke about the hapless Detroit Lions by noting that the Philadelphia Eagles had won, but Leno could have cared less. Not even a word. When David Letterman and Paul Shaffer banter, you not only can tell that there's a longterm friendship there, but also a clear rule that Shaffer will be tolerated but also mocked. As for Leno and Eubanks, they tried to cement their relationship with a "spoof" of the TV show "Cheaters." Leno will not try to convince you that he is known for his acting skills, and perhaps the only thing that prompted a laugh in this bit was Leno cracking up when he suggested that Eubanks was frequenting gay bars without him.Note: Even NBC could not handle showing us the full monologue again.
Back from the first commercial break, and Leno is still standing front and center. Not behind a desk. This. Is. Different. (OK, not that different) Leno tells the audience that he spent his summer going to comedy clubs and saying "get me that guy" in terms of recruiting more comedy, as way to introduce Dan Finnerty and The Dan Band, who have taped a sketch, "Everything is Better with Music," and launch their premise at a Los Angeles car wash. It starts promising, as Finnerty gets rejected by a couple of customers and has to convince the third, before breaking into song. Vacuum dance = sexual innuendo. Who knew? Everybody knew. That's why the studio audience was laughing. It has its moments, but overall, it's rather hit and miss and you begin to think, how long does it take to wash that car?
When they cut back to the studio afterward, why does Leno seem so uncomfortable? Wasn't this all his idea?
Perhaps you have seen the incessant NBC promotions for The Jay Leno Show, promising unprecedented comedy in the 10 o'clock hour for American TV viewers? (If you have a TV, then of course you have, and I wonder if the people in the Central and Mountain time zones get their own ads that say 9 p.m., or if they're just confused? That last part may be rhetorical) Leno has done a lot of press to promote it this summer, from the official TCA "tour," to traveling to various NBC affiliates for promos and interviews, to a conference call earlier this week. We've gotten the message. And the conventional wisdom has been NBC is willing to bet on five hours of comedy as a cheaper option without the promise of big ratings. But. Wait. Just. One. Second.
Five hours of comedy. Much of it stand-up, or taped segments produced and starring stand-up comedians. In primetime! This is a much bigger deal. Jerry Seinfeld, tapped to be Leno's first guest on Monday's debut, has been taking it seriously enough that he has rehearsed his stand-up material several times this week in New York City comedy clubs.
After all, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late 1960s only aired once a week. So was Sid Caesar's Caesar's Hour; Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In; The Milton Berle Show; even The Jack Paar Program that some have compared Leno's move most closely to, only aired one night a week. Which means Leno will need to fill a lot of airtime, and he has enlisted a cadre of comedians to help him do so. NBC so far has announced that Leno will be airing contributions from D.L. Hughley, Jim Norton, Rachael Harris, Mikey Day, Dan Finnerty and the Dan Band, Liz Feldman, Brian Unger, Nick Thune, Owen Benjamin, Marina Franklin, Sebastian Maniscalco and former Leno intern Ross Matthews. UPDATED: Also Dwayne Perkins, who wasn't listed on the NBC press release, but was showing up on the TV ads for Leno during Thursday night's NFL coverage. And here is video of Time magazine photographing Leno on the new set.
In some interviews, Leno has said he's not looking to do what The Daily Show does, (except for the fact that he'll have NBC's own news anchor, Brian Williams presenting funny news) which is true only in that he already had been sending out comedians into the world to file their own takes on the news -- as this NBC clip package shows:
From what I have learned talking to the comedians who are participating on the show, as well as looking at what these people were bringing to the table already, I think I'm safe in telling you what we can expect from the part of Leno's hour that does not include celebrity car races, Headlines, Jaywalking or Jay's monologue.