Reviewing The Jay Leno Show: Who knew being funny would be his biggest challenge?
“You know, in the ‘90s, when we quit a show, we actually left,” cracked comic Jerry Seinfeld Monday night, injecting a brief bit of actual comedy into the floundering, listless exercise that was the first Jay Leno Show. “But not in the Brett Favre, Lance Armstrong double 00s.”
This was about the point where fans who had turned up to watch Leno try forging a life beyond the Tonight Show may have wondered whether Seinfeld had the right idea.
Much as industry types obsessed over how the new Jay Leno Show might reshape television, nobody really considered things might turn out the way they did Monday night.
What if the show just isn’t funny?
That was an unthinkable prospect three months ago, when Leno left the Tonight Show after having maneuvered NBC into giving him 25 percent of their entire primetime landscape. After all, this was a comic’s comic, who had led television’s top late night comedy show for the past 17 years.
The last problem anyone expected was the funny.
But that's exactly what proved most troublesome Monday night, mostly because too much of this new show felt like shadows of old late night programs. Walking through a set of glass doors, Leno strode onstage to shake hands with the audience, just like he did on the old Tonight Show, backed by longtime bandleader Kevin Eubanks and the old Tonight Show band, working under a new name.
Leno’s monologue felt like a rerun, too – centered on the president’s speech to Congress last Wednesday and jokes about the long gone Cash for Clunkers automobile purchasing program. (“I made $5-billion,” cracked the comic, referencing his passion for collecting old cars).
Even the much-anticipated appearance by rapper Kanye West, who asked for a short interview before performing with Rihanna and Jay-Z to apologize for dissing Taylor Swift at MTV’s Video Music Awards Sunday, fell flat.
“Just dealing with the fact that I hurt someone or took something away from a talented artist…it was rude,” said a barely coherent West, who had been castigated all day for snatching the microphone from Swift during an acceptance speech to tout singer Beyonce’s video.
Leno got one good question in – asking West what his now-deceased mother would have thought of his display. Unfortunately, the result was to make the rapper choke up even more, making an uncomfortable interview even more awkward.
A succession of taped comedy bits filled out the hour – the same kind of silly gags that Leno’s successor Conan O’Brien has been using on the Tonight Show over the past three months.
The end of one sketch – where the comic appears on the confrontational reality show Cheaters to catch Eubanks in the park with a Leno look-alike – was actually given a better ending by folks posting on Twitter. And they didn’t have a summer to work on it all.
Of course, the first episode of any late night comedy show is rarely funny (if you doubt that notion, try watching Saturday Night Live’s first episode sometime). The best you can hope for is a strong framework; a percolating template for a show that can eventually be filled with quality comedy, once everybody settles down.Who knew that might be the biggest challenge for guy once known as the King of Late Night Comedy?