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Leno’s Tonight Show Return: Thoughts In Real Time

We won’t count all those times Leno did the exact same show at 10 o’clock


 

So here I am waiting for Jay Leno’s first Tonight Show since the last one, not counting all those times he did exactly the same show at 10 o’clock. This is unlikely to be the kind of event that even Leno’s “farewell” (heh-heh, just kidding) was last year. His interest is, or should be, in creating a sense of continuity: making it seem like he never really left, that all the unpleasantness in-between was merely a blip .

I have a hard time imagining that he’ll make any surprising jokes — my prediction, which I fully admit could be wrong, is a couple of NBC-bashing jokes plus lots of Olympics material. So the interesting question is whether his faux-victim act, which he introduced at 10 and perfected on Oprah, will still be in effect. Will he continue to talk as if he was repeatedly fired by NBC and that he’s reluctantly come back to save The Tonight Show from someone else’s failure? Only time, and by “time” I mean “11:35 eastern,” will tell.

– Okay, here it is. You have to give them credit for being open about the fact that they’re trying to wish away the past few months: the Wizard of Oz “it was all a dream” bit is meant to imply that all the unpleasantness is behind us. Plus he gets to have Betty White before SNL does. Sorry, Leno, having Betty White on does not make you cool by osmosis.

– Leno segues almost instantly into the Olympics jokes, and lame ones at that: the Russians sucked, Americans are awesome but don’t really understand hockey, a brief shout-out to the Canadians for kicking the Americans’ ass (but not dwelling on it). The point is, he’s telling us right away that this will be business as usual: he is not going to talk about or even acknowledge the controversies surrounding him, and is going to go back to the same jokes he always makes. I am certainly not saying that this is a bad idea; most viewers don’t care about the Twitter-based controversies, and they are tuning in to hear jokes about what happened recently, not what happened months ago. Anyone tuning in hoping for him to address the issues, or defend himself, will be disappointed — but on the plus side, when he doesn’t address it, he can’t portray himself as a victim.

– And there is really nothing to say about the monologue after this: it’s long, it’s full of the usual jokes with his usual subjects (including the California state government — why does he think anyone cares about this except Californians? or is laughing at California a universal pastime?) and his usual rhythm. I guess that’s why he’s successful; no matter how bad his comedy gets in an aesthetic sense, he has the confidence to stick to it and ignore the criticism. Leno’s total confidence (at least outward) is at once his most admirable and infuriating quality. Infuriating because he uses this valuable piece of TV real estate for nothing of any particular interest. Admirable because he’s probably right that his job is to do what his viewers like.

– When the “search for a desk” segment started I was waiting to see how long it would take him to be condescending to people who don’t have the good sense to be rich. It took about 59 seconds until he pointed out the Kentucky Fried Chicken box and sarcastically said “Mommy’s a good cook, huh?” See, it’s funny because mommy probably has lots of things to do, and why didn’t she hire a chef or take the family out to a gourmet restaurant like Jay and all his friends do?

– I should say something about his visit to that judge from American Idol who used to be everybody’s least favourite until Kara showed up. But apart from his ridiculously awkward plug of his other project that nobody watches, there was nothing interesting about it. But that’s not Jay’s fault. It’s Randy; nothing involving him can be interesting.

– As James Poniewozik pointed out on Twitter, Leno’s statement that Sarah Palin (his guest tomorrow) has “never been on late night” is false. She appeared on Conan’s Tonight parodying William Shatner’s parody of her. However, it’s a fake-but-accurate statement because she’s never been an official announced guest on a late-night show. Leno is sounding more and more like a politician every day, making statements that need to be parsed.

– From his first repeated “What up!” Jamie Foxx is proving himself to be a new Robin Williams, with  pre-packaged wackiness. Except Williams isn’t as tiresome a guest as he used to be, so maybe Foxx is pulling ahead of him. However, one thing to note is that Foxx is just about the only person so far who has acknowledged that this show is some kind of “event.” His attempt to get us all pumped about Leno’s return is unintentionally awkward because Leno is trying so hard to pretend that he never left.

– The second part of the Leno/Foxx interview is just boring. As an interviewer, I think Leno’s weakness is that, again, his preoccupations are so rarified — he’s interested in cars, California, and various rich-guy fixations — that the questions he asks tend to be interesting to himself and his guest but not to normal folk. But maybe his car obsession (he’s asking Foxx about cars again) cements his appeal to people in non-urban areas where cars dominate.

– Now comes American gold medalist Lindsey Vonn. They don’t have many gold medal winners, at least not compared to, er, some countries, but I can’t really criticize her and won’t try. Leno is adopting the usual slightly off-putting tone that interviewers adopt when an attractive young woman is the guest (but this is one area where Letterman usually out-squicks him; Leno is a bit more comfortable talking to people as if they’re people).

– Musical guest, Brad Paisley. with all the “Wal-Mart country” music iconography including the overly large flag in the background. It’s a clever song, if one that leaves me with the feeling that somebody must have done something like it before.

– And now Leno wraps the whole thing up and tells us to stay tuned for Fallon’s one-year anniversary. Wrapping up a very un-special hour that did more or less what he needed to do: create a sense of continuity with his previous version and make it seem like nothing much has happened in the interim. The lack of self-defending and victimology is a plus; if he can get through the week without doing the victim routine, he may be all right.


 
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Leno’s Tonight Show Return: Thoughts In Real Time

  1. all that for a desk???

  2. Doesn't SNL count as Late night? Palin has been on that more than once.

  3. Wow – you're over the top with some of these criticisms. You read way too much into that KFC quip. And Leno is sounding like a politician? He sounds like the same guy he's sounded like for the last 20 years. You sound bitter Jaime – did Leno cost YOU a job at some point?

    • I don't really feel bitter (which I suppose doesn't mean I'm not; I might be bitter and don't know it), and my finding him condescending goes back years. My problem with Leno has much more to do with me not liking his comedy than with any Team CoCo affiliations (is that even still going on?). So if he were coming back with no baggage at all, my tone would be more or less the same, for better or worse.

      • Fair enough. I'm not a fan, and don't find him particularly funny myself.

        At the same time, it just seems like bashing Leno is as vogue as getting Betty White to do guest sports these days… And it's really hard to see whether his "down to Earth" persona is a complete facade or at least PARTIALLY genuine. I realize he has a ridiculously huge car collection, but the shots at him being wealthy or out-of-touch can apply to just about any celebrity.

    • And Leno is sounding like a politician? He sounds like the same guy he's sounded like for the last 20 years.

      Exactly. For the last 20 years, Jay Leno has sounded like a politician.

      I just can't believe this guy is still on T.V. He's like a vampire or something. Won't someone please find a way to put Jay Leno out of our misery?

  4. Like it didn't happen and he never left. I guess we shouldn't have expected anything else.

    I was a little surprised at all the Bush jokes in the monologue (what is this, 2008?)….okay, I wasn't surprised.

    • If you told me he was still doing O.J. jokes I wouldn't be shocked. It always seemed to me like his monologue choices were driven not by the question "What's the funniest jokes we can write?" but "What will go over with the largest number of people?" Which explains why he's so safe, predictable and successful, and which makes his weakness for topics like California's budget — which most of the TV audience probably shrugs off in boredom — really stand out.

  5. "…including the California state government — why does he think anyone cares about this except Californians? …"

    Interestingly, California has roughly the same population as Canada. So I wonder if you would make the same statement about anything anyone says about Canada. I rather doubt it.

    • If he made lots of jokes about Canada's government on a show that's broadcast to the entire U.S., then yes, I would find that strange as well.

  6. The one thing I learned from last night's show is the director and/or cameraman had a major Lindsey Vonn leg fetish, from the angle they shot the interview at. As for the rest of the show, I wouldn't have expected them to do much different than what was done before. They're going to see if people will come back to a rehashed version of what worked for 15 or so years, and if they don't after 6-8 months or so, then Leno might be forced to do something different.

  7. Would you count Palin's pre-recorded statement on Craig Ferguson's show as her first appearance on late-night television?

  8. Does Jay have a new bandleader yet? I can't bear to look.

  9. Jamie: Jay is no worse or better than most of today's 'late show' hosts. Yes, he's predictable. Yes, he's a poor interviewer. But who wouldn't be when the benchmark of late night hosts is Johnny Carson. He was very unpredictable. He was a superb interviewer when he wanted to be serious. He had classic comedian's timing. And he got pretty good mileage out of his relationship wuth Ed McMahon who, himself, was a pretty boring person.

  10. Brian — Sorry, but Leno is far below either of the CBS hosts (and it's worth remembering that Carson himself considered Letterman his rightful successor), and probably a little bit worse than Jimmy Kimmel (Jimmy Fallon is still learning the ropes, but it's not promising). What makes him truly rancid, however, is his sense of victimhood — a bit rich, coming from a man with a $150 million parachute — and how shoddily he and NBC treated Conan. In his rush to rewrite history and make Conan look like the bad guy, he neglected to mention that his own 10pm show was so bad, many of the NBC affiliates were demanding it be taken off the air — and that Conan's ratings were being affected by the lousy lead-in that was The Jay Leno Show,

    • Well dakmart, Conan's ratings were poor because of Conan, not his lead in. No one stopped people from watching Conan. And Leno's 10:00 show acheived exactly the ratings NBC predicted. What NBC did not predict was the near mutiny by the affiliates.

  11. Carson was the best but Leno is not far behind. Love his routines. He has it all over the other pretenders. Leave the man alone and allow him to entertain us.

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