In some respects, “The Jay Leno Show” is going to be a lot like Leno’s “The Tonight Show” turned upside down.
Leno’s best-known comedy bits, such as the “Jaywalking” segment, his riffs on headlines and 99¢ Only Store advertisements, will run in the final quarter-hour of NBC’s most talked-about new fall series, which begins its Monday-Friday run in the 10 p.m. slot on Sept. 14.
In a freewheeling roundtable sesh with reporters on Wednesday, Leno noted that while his “Tonight Show” was always “frontloaded” with the best material in the first half-hour, before viewership dropped off, the 10 p.m. show will feature his signature segments stacked at the end of the hour. That’s a decision that came at the request of NBC’s affiliates, who want the biggest possible aud leading into their 11 p.m. newscasts.
Leno said he’s enthused about the prospect of hanging on to a larger chunk of his aud for a full hour.
“I think 10 o’clock is the new 11:30,” he quipped.
Leno admitted that much of his show remains a work in progress, even with just a little more than three weeks to go until its premiere. A big component will be pre-taped bits from a raft of correspondents. Leno stressed that he and his producers went out of their way to assemble an eclectic roster of contributors.
“We have a diverse group,” Leno said. “It looks like America; it’s not a bunch of white guys doing standup.”
Leno hesitated to offer too many specifics on the kind of material the correspondents will deliver. Comedian Liz Feldman recently went to an assisted living center to teach seniors how to use Twitter. D.L. Hughley has been traveling around the country trying to raise money for the beleaguered state of California. Up-and-coming comic Mikey Day has a running bit in which he follows people with fake paparazzi in tow.
In his hour with reporters, Leno was loose and seemingly sanguine about the big 10 p.m. experiment (“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work”). But he did have a strong reaction when asked about the backlash from some in the creative community to his show for displacing scripted dramas on NBC.
Leno noted that his show employs 22 scribes whose earnings put them in the top 5% of Writers Guild of America members.
“If we didn’t do this, you’d have ‘Dateline’ five nights a week,” he said. “If I wasn’t doing this, someone else would. At least we have union people working on this show.”
He also noted that with the growth of basic cable, “There are more scripted primetime dramas now than at any other point in history.”
With his monologue, Leno expects to deliver about eight to 12 minutes a night of straight standup comedy. But the focus on taped bits from contributors is a reflection of Leno’s feeling that too much standup in an hour gets a little dull for the home aud.
“In the last 10-15 years on all the talkshows, (standup) doesn’t snap quite as much. So this is a way to use young comics in a new way. They go out and shoot the standup pieces” they’d otherwise riff on in front of a microphone, Leno said.
Leno assured reporters that his show would not feature traditional variety-show sketches, nor would it be packed with guests. Most episodes will feature a single guest, plus a segment later in the show dubbed “10 at 10,” in which celebs and other newsmakers will answer a rapid-fire series of 10 “ridiculous, celebrity-based questions.”
Leno, well known for his love of cars and motorcycles, is also revved up about the “Green Car Challenge” segment that may run two or three times a week. Guests will be invited to take an electric Ford Focus car around a racetrack that is under construction in the parking lot adjacent to Studio 11 on the NBC Burbank lot where the show will be taped weekdays at 4 p.m.
The race will be an ongoing competition for guests to beat the best time on record for two laps around the track, or a total of 2,200 feet. Leno, who led reporters on a tour of his set (still under construction), said he’s already received calls from racing enthusiasts like Patrick Dempsey and Tom Cruise.
Beyond the recurring segments, Leno said viewers should expect the show to be packed with comedy, which he thinks will be competitive in the drama-heavy 10 p.m. slot.
“It’s just trying to give you a laugh before you go to bed,” he said. “This is just meat and potatoes, good food at sensible prices.”