In last week’s first episode of Jay Leno’s new talk show, guest Jerry Seinfeld joked that back in his day, when people did a farewell show, they really went off the air. If only that had indeed applied to Leno, who ended his 17-year tenure as the host of The Tonight Show back in May. But no, Leno merely took the summer off to cook up The Jay Leno Show (NBC, weeknights, 10 p.m.), a slightly tweaked version of the exact same thing he did at 11:30 for all those years. NBC has gambled big on Leno as part of its prime-time lineup, sacrificing five hours a week that could otherwise be filled with dramas, comedies or reality shows to allow Leno to continue working his bland, middle America-beloved magic.
- The Jay Leno Show
That’s exactly what he does, so anyone who loved Leno on Tonight will likely continue to love him here. But extending the host’s brand of middle-of-the-road, obvious comedy and fawning celebrity interviews is not something to be celebrated, and even less so as it takes away from Conan O’Brien’s authority as new Tonight host (a stint that has been uneven but mostly entertaining). Faced with essentially a blank check from NBC to create whatever show he wanted, Leno has just recycled the same stuff he’s always done with very minor differences, and that makes his continued presence even more disappointing.
NBC spent most of the summer hyping Leno’s show as the return of comedy to 10 p.m., in contrast to the mostly serious dramas that other networks air in that time slot. Leno recruited a slew of comedians to be special correspondents for the show, giving the impression that the new program would be more of a comedy-variety hybrid than a straightforward talk show. A prime-time showcase for stand-up and sketch comedy would indeed be something new and different, and entirely welcome on network TV, but in reality what Leno’s recruitment drive has amounted to is one extra segment per show of comedy (sometimes stand-up, sometimes prepackaged segments), and either he’s gathered up comedians as mediocre and unfunny as he is, or somewhere along the line they’ve had all the creativity and edge sapped out of their material, because the new segments are just as clumsy and played out as Leno classics like “Jaywalking” and “Headlines.”
Okay, I admit I kind of like “Headlines,” the segment that points out amusing typos mostly in small-town newspapers, although it’s really been run into the ground over the years. The same could be said for most of the comedy on Leno’s show—it’s tired and warmed over, and you can often predict the punchline before he says it. He’s not afraid to reuse subjects from day to day, or from year to year. Can’t get enough jokes about Brett Favre’s retirement flip-flopping? Leno’s got about a dozen of them a week.
Even Leno’s supposed strength, his easygoing celebrity interviews, falters here. There’s generally just one sit-down guest per episode, and in the first week Leno did fine talking to the likes of Seinfeld, Robin Williams and Halle Berry. But a new segment called “Ten at Ten,” with celebrities appearing via satellite for Leno to ask them 10 rapid-fire questions, is useless and beyond awkward, subject to time lag and missed jokes and failed attempts at banter. Even the producers have to realize that this bit is DOA. Ultimately Leno is too affable to actively hate, but his unshakable grip on the network talk-show landscape is still sad. The higher his profile becomes, the more frustrating his flaws seem.