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.