Leno returns to ‘Tonight Show’

Late-night host back in the saddle at NBC

NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno: The Chin-quel” stuck with a low-key relaunch Monday.

Leno returned to 11:35 p.m. with a new theme song (a re-worked, uptempo version of his old “Tonight Show” opener) and a renovated set.

Otherwise, the host’s familiar formula was there: Audience members racing to shake hands and high-five Leno at the open; a current events-themed monologue; guest spots from a hyper Jamie Foxx and Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, and a musical number from country star Brad Paisley.

Leno made a few references to his “Tonight Show” return, starting with a cold open that acknowledged his segue back into latenight — although it wasn’t the “Dallas”-inspired “it was all a dream” clip many had expected.

Instead, Leno went with a riff on the equally famous “I had the strangest dream” moment from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“It’s good to be home,” Leno said, kicking off his monologue. “I’m Jay Leno, your host … at least for a while.”

The host made a few other references to the lingering fallout from NBC’s Latenight Crisis Circa January 2010, but mostly stuck to hosting “The Tonight Show” as if he’d never left.

“I’ve got to admit that I’m a little nervous,” he said. “Not because it’s my first night back. Because I know Dave and Oprah are watching.”

That’s a reference, of course, to the “Late Show With David Letterman” Super Bowl ad, featuring Leno and Oprah Winfrey. The spot, generated from the Letterman camp, became a centerpiece of NBC’s Leno image rehab campaign.

Leno’s return mirrored the soft-sell marketing NBC put behind the show. Whether or not Leno fans — who’ve been jerked from latenight to primetime and back within a year — return en masse remains to be seen.

“I’d be surprised if Leno did not take back his time-period lead over Letterman at 11:35 p.m.,” said media analyst Steve Sternberg. “Jay Leno’s image with his fans has not soured at all.”

Sternberg also noted that Leno’s audience, half of which is older than 55, are a loyal bunch.

Conan O’Brien fans are still smarting from NBC’s failed plan to bump the O’Brien “Tonight Show” to midnight. It wound up costing the Peacock not only O’Brien’s services, but also $45 million in exit compensation. O’Brien, who launched a Twitter account last week, is planning a live tour of the country later this year. He’s also in the early stages of talking to Fox about launching a new show.

Back in New York, Letterman also made cracks about Leno’s return. “Welcome to the ‘Late Show,’ my name is Dave Letterman — same time, same host,” Letterman said Monday night.

One rival network exec expected Leno to get strong sampling Monday — which should continue on Tuesday, when Sarah Palin appears. Whether Leno can leap ahead of timeslot leader Letterman, whom Leno beat for 15 years, remains to be seen.

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