Leno was wise to ignore the temptations of frontloading and started out with what he and his colleagues may consider the ideal program matrix: a promotional draw and program energizer (Billy Crystal), a pop performer (singer Shanice) and an artful talker with a middlebrow topic (Robert Krulwich).
It worked. The overall ambience was old (which is to say comfortable), the parody of a public service announcement (“Feed The Felons,” an adopt-a-foster-child sendup) seemed borrowed from “Saturday Night Live” and the vibrant set colors and sleek music of Brandon Marsalis’ band were distinctly new.
Leno’s standup was both funny and balanced. The inevitable flogging was administered to that hapless hostage of American comedians, Vice President Dan Quayle, but Gov. Bill Clinton also absorbed a waterline shot (He considers sex “a deeply personal matter … between a candidate and his campaign workers.”).
Crystal, the closest thing in the industry to the universal, all-purpose guest, was predictably zippy, and told a breathtakingly funny Redd Foxx story. Shanice and Krulwich delivered on cue.
One suspects that Leno wants to position the show as asomewhat younger, somewhat hippier version of Carson, with the capability of attracting those who find Arsenio, Whoopi, et al, slightly too, well, contemporary. It is probably a valid strategy.
Whatever, Leno is a smart trouper who knows his medium and his audience. Even with the fragmentation of the time period and the talk genre, one suspects he will assemble a commercially credible audience and achieve longevity–which for television, to again use the marriage metaphor, is anything that lasts longer than Prince Andrew and Fergie.