In case you missed it, (and judging by the early overnights at TV By the Numbers, plenty of you did) Jay Leno premiered last night for his experiment in moving late night television into prime time. The Washington Post gave the square jawed funnyman a fairly charitable review, soothing fears on the part of some viewers that “the new Jay” would be terrible. It was, they note, the same old Jay Leno.
Leno’s funny, but in the safest way. He’s adheres to the center of the exact middle road, so it’s wrong to expect a revolution here. He has all the draw of buy-one-get-one-free smoothies. His comedy is bubble-wrap; its appeal needs no explaining. He goes with Dan Brown novels and Marriott Rewards points and repeat viewings of the cinchy CBS crime procedurals he now finds himself programmed against: Who doesn’t like all of those things?
And who won’t watch Jay when nothing else is on, or when the nurse won’t come change the channel?
I watched most of the show. (Full disclosure… ten o’clock is my bed time and while I generally turn the TV on, it’s mostly for some background noise to fall asleep to, and my wife shuts it off.) I won’t go so far as to say that Jay’s new program is a carbon copy of The Tonight Show, but the similarities are hard to miss – except for the quality. With full apologies to the Leno faithful, I didn’t think Jay was on his game and the format and crew have problems. Leno seemed kind of unsure of himself, amazingly, during the opening monologue which was little more than a series of cheap, easy shots at the current media whipping boys and girls. He took a poke at Kanye West (who was his apologetic guest later in the program) as well as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. The material was there, but it didn’t feel fresh and pretty much fell flat, in my opinion.
The pre-recorded skits were perhaps the most painful elements of the new format. His shtick with band leader Kevin Eubank doing a spoof of “Cheaters” where he finds Kevin in the park with a Leno impersonator had me fidgeting and thinking of turning it off. It just wasn’t funny. Even having Jerry Seinfeld come on as a guest couldn’t save the middle of the show, since he was mostly pimping his new HBO appearance.
Will this experiment last? The network is unlikely to pull the carpet out from under Jay Leno’s feet as fast as they would with an unknown product, but they won’t tolerate low ratings in that time slot forever. Last night Jay had the excuse of being up against the season premiere of Monday Night Football where Tom Brady and the Patriots staged a huge comeback in the final minutes and holding their audience into the first twelve minutes of Jay’s slot on the east coast. We’ll need a few more nights with Jay facing off against non-sports competition before we get a good feel for the numbers. But if the opener was any indication, I don’t think it looks promising.