'The Tonight Show,' but Earlier!

Media Reviews for Media People: 'The Jay Leno Show'

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During Jay Leno's heyday on "The Tonight Show," my pals and I used to try and predict his monologue jokes in advance. Without much effort, we came close most every night: "Didja hear about this? O.J. Simpson is going on vacation now that the trial is done. He's going to ... Carmel-Ito! With a stop in ... Kato-rado Springs!" Or maybe: "I tell you, the Clintons can't catch a break. Just when they thought they were done with Monica-Gate, Bill and Hillary headed out to Martha's Vineyard for some R&R. But then a rainstorm blew in-ski!"

Jay Leno - same old ride.
Jay Leno - same old ride.
Such was our contempt for the guy. In retrospect, it wasn't the obviousness of his humor that bugged us -- there were, are and will always be unfunnier people on TV, most of them substituting volume for wit -- so much as how he'd neutered himself, how he'd abandoned the sharp observational jabs of his standup days for a masses-friendly grin-and-shrug act. In remembering what he was, we came to loathe what he'd become: deliberately, contentedly mediocre.

Alas, the fake-jokes bit got old fast, and I more or less banished Jay Leno from my mind. At least I did until about three weeks ago, when NBC unleashed the Hurricane Katrina of promotional blitzes for "The Jay Leno Show."

It's been speculated that the promotional maelstrom soured a subset of viewers -- notably those of us who tuned in for a football game on Sunday night but were instead treated to a Leno infomercial, complete with a Bob Costas interview that felt like a blind date between two people who don't speak the same language -- before the show first aired on Monday. There's some truth to that. The only places where I haven't been treated to the sight of Jay's bulbous dome have been in the shower and on the tarmac. He has infiltrated my idle waking moments and my dreams. I realize that this says more about me than about NBC's marketing strategy.

The promos attempted to sell "The Jay Leno Show" as something novel: a comedy oasis in the 10 p.m. sexy-doctors-performing-sexy-prostatectomies desert. I can't speak for anybody else, but I have never once contemplated the possibility of laughing during this temporal window. The other 23 hours of the day, sure. But come 10 p.m., my world revolves around the jokeless antics of pretty criminal pathologists in well-tailored pantsuits. Who among us had the creative vision to contemplate that there might be another way -- indeed, a more mirthful one?

So yeah, I'd have gone the diametrically opposite route in selling this thing. I'd have said, "Meet the new Jay, same as the old Jay!" or perhaps, "If you liked Jay Leno on 'The Tonight Show,' you will like him here, because he will do the exact same stuff exactly the same way and spare you the bother of cognitive dissonance, without using words like 'cognitive' or 'dissonance'!" I'd have promised that Leno's cherished bits -- like "Jaywalking," in which he performs the thankless public service of exposing unbeknownst pockets of ignorance among the American citizenry -- would return unchanged. I'd have positioned the show as comfort food, as macaroni and cheese in a kettle-steamed grouper world.

Because, quite common-sensically, that's exactly what the show is: a Leno-era "Tonight" rehash. What'd you expect? Subversive undermining of comedy tropes a la Zach Galifianakis or Andy Kaufman? Millions like Jay Leno just as he is: as a middle-of-the-road comic who performs middle-of-the-road comedy for middle-of-the-road-comedy-enjoying people. You know what happens when such established personalities venture outside their comfort zone? "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot", that's what.

The show itself has become incidental to the question of What It All Means for the Future of Television, so here's a fast recap. The hour starts with some audience hand-slapping, then a seven- to nine-minute monologue that touches on such outré topics as remote controls, Lady Gaga, "Cash for Clunkers" and the ongoing futility of the Detroit Lions. Happy host Jay then introduces a moderately well-known comic for pre-taped or in-studio bits that make you sad. One celebrity, another celebrity (oftentimes during a "10 @ 10" segment in which he lobs provocative questions like "What are you better at, flying or sex?" at Tom Cruise), a Jay-centric skit, and then it's goodnight, folks. Come back tomorrow for Stanley Tucci and the dulcet tones of Flo Rida.

Is there anything to like here? The streamlined set is pretty neat, with its digital marquee and pockets of plant life. In theory, the show does a mitzvah by featuring moderately unknown performers -- though in practice "Everything Is Better With Music" and "Jim Norton, Uninvited Guest" made me lunge for the remote as if it were a lifeline. And it's never a bad thing to give celebrities another high-profile venue in which to embarrass themselves, as Michael Moore did with his a capella rendering of "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Seriously. He sang. Michael Moore. Yup.

Truth is, we could've pre-written our "Jay Leno Show" reviews in mid-May, just as the newswires pre-wrote obituaries for Walter Cronkite and Farrah Fawcett. Hell, we could've done it in precisely five words: "'The Tonight Show,' but Earlier." That's all.

"The Jay Leno Show" is not worth the attention it's been receiving as a departure from usual network practice or as a prime-time economic paradigm-shift doohickey. It is a TV show that airs on TV, and a pathetically tame one at that. Don't addle your brain by ascribing significance to it beyond that.

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