Jay Leno's new Tonight Show returns looking a lot like the old one
Unfunny opening skit with celebrity cameo? Check. (This time, it was Leno dreaming his return to late night like he was Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz, with Betty White showing up to toss a zinger or two).
Dated monologue with jokes about stuff that happened more than a week ago? Check. (Leno dropped quips about the Tiger Woods apology press conference). And there was the requisite NBC-bashing, including this one tucked into his jokes about the Winter Olympics: "When it comes to going downhill, no one's faster -- except maybe NBC."
Taped on the set of Leno's old 10 p.m. program -- with the once-prominent stage flooring shaped like a TV test pattern colored over with brown paint -- the whole show became an odd, uncomfortable metaphor for the position NBC finds itself now, propping up a damaged hero in late night with its future left uncertain.
Leno spent little time dwelling on the painful past, acknowledging the bizarrely public breakdown which saw him retake the Tonight Show from Conan O'Brien only obliquely. Indeed, those who suspected Leno never really accepted his move to 10 p.m. last year found proof in his opening sentence:
"It's good to be home," he told the cheering crowd. "I'm Jay Leno, your host...at least for a while."
Of course, Leno can relax on that score, secure that his only real competitor was driven off the network like a downsized employee (Jimmy Fallon, are you watching?). That new sense of security may explain why Leno didn't return with much up his sleeve besides a raft of celebrity guests and a few Olympics jokes; if this new Tonight Show fails, what are they going to do -- fire him a third time?
Speaking of guests, actor/singer/professional irritant Jamie Foxx took the stage with twice as much energy as the guy who was supposed to be reclaiming his late night throne, urging the crowd to chant Leno's name and spraying them with a bottle of champagne.
Say what you will about Foxx, who can come off like a manic mix of Kanye West and Robin Williams -- at least he recognized that Leno should actually be trying hard to entertain his audience, briefly turning the show into a real late night party. This, by the way, was a serious upgrade from Leno's first guest on his 10 p.m. show back in September; a smugly tuxedoed and way too-relaxed Jerry Seinfeld.
Flip over to competitor David Letterman's CBS show, and you saw, oddly, the same type of opening: a few jokes about the new late night fight ("This is a rough night for my mom. She doesn't know who to watch; Jimmy Kimmel or Jay.") a long run of Olympics jokes, Tiger Woods snark and old reliable guest Bill Murray.
It wasn't until this moment I realized how good all the late night instability was for viewers -- pushing guys who have been working the same broadcast shtick for long years into unfamiliar territory, making their shows energetic, unpredictable and pointedly creative.
Now that all that is behind us, we really have traveled back to the future -- a return to the comfortable rhythms of late night which might soothe the hosts and network executives.
But viewers may leave nostalgic for the days when bitter anger about NBC's dysfunction brought way funnier performances.