To what should be the surprise of no one, Jay Leno’s new show looks a whole lot like the old one — defined more by his real estate than the cosmetic changes brought to “The Jay Leno Show” to mollify fidgety affiliates. Then again, Leno wasn’t eager to leave “The Tonight Show” or begin meddling with the formula, though he again played the good soldier by amending the format to try retaining more viewers leading into local newscasts. NBC might be gambling on this cheaper model, but in terms of content, Leno clearly isn’t.
All the old trademarks were there at the outset, from an opening 10-minute monologue (during which Leno apologized for the network’s relentless promotional blitz) to “Headlines” to close the hour. What came in between, alas, felt as if it was working a little too hard to prove that this is really a “comedy show” instead of simply “The Tonight Show” at an earlier hour — and that people shouldn’t drift off to sleep halfway through it. (The still-unanswered question is for those who get what used to be their “Tonight” fix at 10, what will that do to Conan O’Brien at 11:35?)
The problem with the new approach, even in the premiere, is it feels like some bits are being padded to avoid front-loading the show. Coming out of the monologue, for example, Dan Finnerty and the Dan Band crafted a taped segment at a car wash that started with promise and petered out long before the rinse cycle began. A mocked-up interview with President Obama played better, but that, too, would have benefited from some nips and tucks.
OK, so the desk was gone, but Leno’s armchair-to-armchair chat with Jerry Seinfeld felt suspiciously like the awkward non-interviews that the host regularly conducted on his previous show. Oprah Winfrey dropped in via an over-sized TV screen, but that gag was a trifle thin.
As for the unexpected gift of having Kanye West slated to perform right after his attention-grabbing outburst at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, Leno’s gentle pre-song interview merely looked uncomfortable — for both of them. (For some reason, the Hugh Grant “What were you thinking?” line went unsaid.)
All told, the best joke belonged to Seinfeld, alluding to Leno’s summer hiatus and much-ballyhooed return. “In the ’90s, when we quit a show, we actually left,” Seinfeld quipped.
But that’s never been Leno’s work ethic, which helps explain the don’t-let-him-go-elsewhere fix in which NBC found itself. “The Jay Leno Show” figures to generate solid sampling these first few nights, but that’s before the heavy machinery arrives on the other networks next week — when the game, and the sweating, begins in earnest.
Until then, NBC would be strongly advised to keep those “The New King of 10 O’Clock” press releases under wraps for awhile.