No joke: Jay Leno stormed back last night with a vengeance.
An overnight, estimated audience of 17.66 million tuned in to see him chat with Jerry Seinfeld and basically make Kanye West squirm. The comedian’s 10 p.m. premiere smoked the competition, not surprising given he was up against repeats on CBS (although there was a Monday Night Football game) and a summer full of hype on NBC. It was NBC’s biggest overall audience since the Summer Olympic Games in August of 2008.
The first episode did not vary that much from his Tonight Show routine. Leno opened with a monologue, telling just 15 jokes, about half his usual Tonight total. “I’ve been off the air for three months,” he cracked, “or as most people in Hollywood call that, rehab.”
Their was no knock out joke, but a lot of jabs at typical targets. Obama (joke No. 3), Biden (No. 5–also a Cialis joke), Cheney (No. 9), Bush (10). “While we were off, the government started this program to give people money for their old cars,” he said. “I made five billion dollars.”
Best line: “I had a strange thing happen to me the other day. I set my Tivo to record The Biggest Loser—I got the Lions’ game.”
None of the jokes were as funny as Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show set at 11:35. “Welcome to NBC’s night of a thousand monologues,” he cracked. O’Brien is getting more confident and at home in LA by the week.
Overall, The Tonight Show delivered a much more electric show then Leno last night. (Letterman was in repeats). O’Brien has had three months to find his feet and while his Hollywood stunt man bit went on a bit long last night, generally his show has settled into a slick and entertaining hour.
The Jay Leno Show isn’t there yet. Right from the start, past the opening montage of Leno baby pictures to where he steps through glass doors and strides out to the magenta and blue set, it seems a bit disorienting, as if he had wandered onto a daytime talk or game show stage (although I love the vintage test pattern target the host stands on for his monologue).
They should have lost the lame “Cheaters” sketch near the top of the hour (Jay catches band leader Kevin Eubanks with a Leno look-a-like). After the break, Leno introduced Dan Trinity from The Hangover who did a funny (if overlong) bit at a car wash called “Everything Goes Better With Music.” Look for a different comedy correspondent each night in that slot.
Jerry Seinfeld came out after the next break in a tux. “Well, I’m the first guest on your, ‘I guess I didn’t get fired again by NBC’ program.” he deadpanned. Seinfeld was a good choice as first guest, a comedy pal who helped the host look comfortable in his new surroundings. The big, boxy chairs they sat in served to make the show look different from Tonight, for seven minutes, at least.
Leno still has one of those floating Plasma screens. Oprah popped up on it last night. The gag: Seinfeld had the clout to get her on the show where Leno did not. The truth is Winfrey, who’s show has slipped in the ratings the past two seasons, needs the prime time exposure more at this point than Leno.
After another break, Leno did one of those fake interviews where they edit him opposite somebody important who is obviously being interviewed by somebody else. Last night it was president Obama. This led to more Viagra jokes.
Another break, another set up as the show lurched rather than flowed. Leno said he hadn’t planned to do this but, what the heck, Kanye West, come and sit down for a minute. The rapper appeared very contrite and embarrassed as he stammered out an apology for his bizarre behaviour over the weekend at the MTV Awards (a gigantic winner for MuchMusic, which saw ratings spike to nearly 600,000 viewers for the initial broadcast). Leno thanked him for honouring his commitment to appear on the show, then went beyond awkward when he pressed the mommy button, asking West what his mom might have thought about his stunt. West got choked up, left Leno’s principal’s office and then had to go over and sing gangsta rap with Jay-Z and Rihanna. It was like asking Mike Tyson to serve time before getting back into the ring.
Another break and the show veered back into Tonight Show territory, with Leno reading those ol’ reliable Headlines. Best one: “Pollution Threatens to Kill The Dead Sea.” I’m still waiting for “‘Coons Come to Town” or “Yanks Wave Cox,” maybe next time.
Then, as Leno promised at press tour, it was hard into the affiliate newscasts at 11. “Your local news starts right now!” Leno shouted. The hand off to Toronto’s Citytv did not go that smooth, with a beat or two of black air before the City slate came up, interrupted immediately on my screen by the channel substitution flip straight back to Buffalo’s NBC affiliate. That’s when I learned of the Bill’s horrifying last minute loss to the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. Leno owes the Detroit Lions an apology.
Will the numbers go down? Absolutely, starting tonight. Will The Jay Leno Show get better? Yes, and that begins tonight, too. I’m looking forward to that test track where celebrities zip around an outdoor oval against Leno in competing electric cars. The Jay Leno Show can stand some zip and electricity.

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