Jay Leno wasted no time getting back to the jokes.
“The Jay Leno Show” opened up Monday night looking and sounding a lot like “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” with a few mostly cosmetic changes.
The show was packed with material, however, including the serendipitous appearance of guest Kanye West, who had just made headlines because of a boorish act at the MTV Video Music Video Awards.
Kevin Eubanks and the newly retitled “Primetime Band” kicked the hour off with a new theme song — which sounded like a more guitar-driven version of the old Leno “Tonight Show” melody — over a montage of Leno photos through the years.
When Leno walked out, it was to a familiar sight: Audience members racing up to shake the host’s hand, a signature part of Leno’s old “Tonight Show” opening.
Referencing NBC’s promo blitz for the show, Leno then prefaced his monologue with a quip: “Before we get started, this is not another annoying promo. This is the actual show… I apologize for my face being all over the place.”
Leno added that “it’s nice to be back, we’ve been off the air for three months — most people would call that rehab. I’d just be getting out.”
After that, it was business as usual: Topical jokes about newsmakers such as President Obama, philandering former California Assemblyman Mike Duvall and tennis star Serena Williams.
After a comedy bit from Dan Finnerty and the Dan Band, first guest Jerry Seinfeld came out in a tuxedo.
“The first guest on your ‘I guess I didn’t get fired again by NBC’ program,” Seinfeld said. “I’m just trying to grasp what is going on here. Because I remember there was a big farewell show on the ‘Tonight Show.’ It was emotional… you know in the ’90s when we quit a show, we actually left. But not in the Lance Armstrong/Brett Farve 00s. You take a three-day weekend and then right back at it.”
Leno admitted that he had tried to get Oprah Winfrey as his first guest — but failed.
“I could get Oprah,” Seinfeld responded — leading to a video cameo by Winfrey.
Later, before joining Jay-Z and Rihanna to perform “Run This Town,” Kanye West sat down to apologize for interrupting Taylor Swift’s MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech.
“I immediately knew in this situaiton it was wrong,” he said. “It was somebody’s emotions I stepped on. It was rude. I wanted to apologize in person.”
Leno then hit West with a tough question: What would his late mom think of what he had done? Would she be disappointed?
In what was an unexpected opening night moment for Leno, West sat there, unable to answer.
“I need to take some time off after this and analyze how I’m going to make it through the end of this life,” West finally responded.
In a somewhat awkward transition, however, West was then asked if he was ready to perform. The rapper, face sullen, headed to the stage, and managed to recover.
Besides the Dan Band, comedy segments included video of an Obama interview interspersed shots of Leno asking silly questions.
Night one ended with a Leno staple: The host’s “Headlines” bit. And as promised, Leno ended the show with a toss to NBC stations’ local newscasts.
Snap reactions from critics — mostly via Twitter — weren’t kind to “The Jay Leno Show.” Media analyst Steve Sternberg said he was disappointed by a “surprising lack of energy,” and thought Leno “almost seemed disinterested.”
“Primetime requires a faster pace than late night,” he wrote in a quick roundup to reporters. “Headlines didn’t cut it. I’d be surprised if they didn’t tinker with the format and pacing over the next couple of weeks.”