The Kennedy Center Honors is traditionally one of the year’s classiest TV events, but its less-well-known cousin, “The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize” for American humor, could use a rewrite. At least, that’s true based on the 17th edition, honoring Jay Leno, which despite appearances by several high-profile comics saluting the former “Tonight Show” host, never bridges the gap between its live element and a simple clip show devoted to highlights from Leno’s body of work. Jimmy Fallon, at least, gets one thing right: After all Leno did for NBC, it’s strange that “we had to celebrate his career on PBS.”
Granted, devoting a full 90 minutes to such an endeavor (the CBS broadcast recognizes a handful of luminaries from different disciplines in roughly the same time) invites a certain degree of flab, and the jokes – much like a roast – can’t help but become a trifle repetitive. Leno owns a lot of cars, he wore funny outfits in his early days, nobody wants to be too nice lest they tick off Letterman, etc.
Even so, having each comic do a couple of minutes between clip segments doesn’t serve anyone particularly well, especially since the video – loosely divided into themes like Leno’s early TV appearances, or his political humor – is generally uninspired. Ditto for a musical number featuring Kristin Chenoweth and Leno’s band leader Kevin Eubanks, which feels rather obligatory: There’s this big hall full of people, might as well give them something theater-like.
The funniest gag, actually, seems to fly over the crowd’s heads, at least initially, as Seth Meyers says, “It’s so great to be on PBS,” then repeats it, louder, as if he’s addressing a TV audience too elderly to hear him.
For his part, Leno accepts the award in the closing moments, but oddly does a routine straight from his waning days on “The Tonight Show,” in which he talks about rapidly recovering from a motorcycle accident in his late 30s, when his latenight gig began, and hurting himself by coughing now that he’s in his 60s.
Leno sounds generally moved by the honor, and he’s certainly earned it, joining this decade’s recipients Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Ellen DeGeneres and Carol Burnett.
Still, strictly judging “The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize” as a TV show, there’s still a better retrospective to be done on Leno in general, and his “Tonight” stint in particular. Who knows? Maybe even NBC will eventually get around to it.