The talk about whether “The Jay Leno Show” will alter prime-time TV as we know it will probably go on for a good long while. But that discussion is more about business models and profit margins than what you’re actually watching in your living room.
What NBC put on the air at 10 p.m. Eastern/9 Central Monday night was the opposite of radically new. The set was new, and the rhythm was a little different than your typical late-night talk show, but Leno — as he’s said many times — did not set out to re-invent himself or the format he’s been comfortable with for 17 years.
The result? A reasonably entertaining hour of comedy and music that, if I had to guess, drew a pretty big audience. I don’t think, though, that a whole lot of people will be changing their 10 o’clock viewing habits based on Leno’s opening night.
Somewhat surprisingly, there was no cold opening to the show — just “It’s ‘The Jay Leno Show,'” and we’re into the monologue. It was a typically Leno-ian (Lenovian? Yes, let’s go with that. Lenovian) mix of mild jabs at politicians, quick cutaways to videotaped pieces and topical jokes, capped off by a pretty lame taped piece that has Jay going on “Cheaters” to find band leader Kevin Eubanks hanging out with a Leno impersonator.
The show quickly established a rhythm that was pretty similar to Leno’s “Tonight Show” — monologue-comedy bit-guest — minus the desk (the new set just has a couple of chairs where Jay and his guest sit and chat) and the planned second guest and with a signature comedy bit — Headlines, in this case — to the end of the show to lead into the local news. (Tonight’s “Stay tuned” moment: An ad for a Chinese restaurant called House of Poon. Enjoy your late local news, everyone!)
Thanks to a bit of fortuitous booking, Leno also lucked into a second guest (Jerry Seinfeld got the first-guest honors) in the form of Kanye West, who was booked to perform “Run This Town” with Jay-Z and Rihanna well before his ambush of Taylor Swift at Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Leno hadn’t been planning to sit down with any of the musical guests, but in light of what happened Sunday the show carved out a couple minutes for Leno to grill West about his VMA outburst. It was uncomfortable, particularly when Leno asked what West’s late mother might have said to him, and not in any way comedic, but it was also the most compelling moment of the hour — even if Leno deflated it by asking West, “You ready to sing? Give it a shot?” Have a look:
Most of the rest of the show, though, could have been lifted straight from an old “Tonight Show” episode. Seinfeld was his usual reliably funny self, and we’ve seen Leno’s “interview” with the president any number of times from any number of shows.
The idea of showcasing younger comics in taped pieces has promise, even if Monday’s piece featuring The Dan Band felt a little bit long. I could see myself tuning in to or taping future shows based on which of the rotating roster of performers is scheduled to appear.
What I didn’t get Monday is a reason (beyond professional obligation) to watch every night. “The Jay Leno Show” will undoubtedly get more polished as Jay and his team get more used to the new show and the expanded field they have for comedy pieces. It will probably be a big success on Hulu, where viewers can take in the pieces they want and discard the rest. And it may even become the profit machine NBC says it will, and a hit by whatever definition of success the network decides it wants to use.
But changing the face of television as we know it? No. At least not after one night.