Jay Leno essentially submitted to a demotion when he launched his new primetime show two weeks ago. It’s not like anybody expected him to reinvent himself into some sort of incisive, or even particularly funny, comic, but the persona we’ve seen over his nearly 20 years as host of The Tonight Show is exactly what we get on The Jay Leno Show.
Altogether too eager to please, Leno chugged out from the wings onto center stage for the show’s first episode, allowing a dozen or so members of the audience, who were no doubt directed by a boisterous stage manager, to press up toward him. While Kevin Eubanks played his brand of strip-mall jazz, Leno, in a conspicuously patient and attentive manner, gave high-fives to the gathering assembly. Watching, you had no doubt that Leno was, as he always has been, for the troops.
As controversial as ice cream, Leno has always been something of a throwback. So middle-of-the-road as to appear retro, he consistently seems out of synch, recalling a bygone era simply be disapproving of the current one. Regardless of how old you are, he’s your father’s late night talk show host, not yours.
This vibe is summoned in the opening of Jay Leno, when images of Leno, as if culled from a scrapbook, scroll by at lightning speed. We see him looking awkward in a prom tuxedo and then all ‘60s counter-culture in John Lennon glasses and a denim jacket—a quick visual sketch of so many Baby Boomers lives. The pastiche suggests an ever-present Leno, a constantly evolving icon in the cultural landscape in spite of the fact that he didn’t actually achieve professional prominence until 1992, when he took over Johnny Carson’s job.
After his arrival on stage each night, dressed in the sort of suit you never notice, Leno delivers his monologue. He touches on the weather, the differences between the sexes, praises firemen, and then ends with a few parting shots on the Detroit Lions and Muammar Gaddafi. It’s very safe—the good-natured grossing of a neighborhood scold rather than the pretentious fulminations of a New York egghead. Just the sort of stuff we’re used to from Leno.
However, there are a few changes that come with the new show, the most striking being that Leno now conducts his celebrity interviews without the protective screen of a desk. It’s hard to say if this is meant to convey a casual intimacy or not, because all you really notice is the vestigial machismo of the host, which is expressed by his seated posture. With his legs spread apart in an aggressive assertion of his alpha-male status, a defensive bearing often washes over his guests, who lean back and cross their legs, as if in full retreat from Leno’s unmediated enthusiasm and threatening penis.
The new show, which has a lot of recycled favorites from the old one and some stolen from David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, also has more skits and video segments. This is a nod toward the wave of irony that has crested with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—but only in form, not content. Leno and his writers follow along in this trend, but they substitute familiarity for satire, choosing to mock pop culture rather than unearth political hypocrisy. It’s utterly toothless stuff, but it gives an audience seeking distraction and reassurance a retributive measure of satisfaction, like they’ve unearthed the petty vanities of our society (Kanye West, a nation is looking right at you).
However, when Leno does a bit called “Earn Your Plug,” in which the celebrity guest must perform a stunt of some sort in order to receive the right to promote their upcoming project, there’s a real vaudevillian charm to the affair. It’s kind of quirky and fun to make the star sing for their supper, but it’s still a cynical manipulation that serves the entertainment industry’s interests while allowing the Waffle House culture watching a measure of haughty satisfaction.
With an abundance of pre-taped video segments and satellite interviews, Jay Leno wraps a very old-fashioned sensibility within a modern package. It’s an interesting presentation. Much less expensive than a primetime procedural, the show, which recycles fast-food comedy for a loyal and unflinching audience, is starting to look like some amalgam of America’s Funniest Videos and Saturday Night Live. Most people think that the new Leno experiment is doomed, but what NBC seems to be after is a cheap variety show, one that harkens back to Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett—only for the YouTube age. Leno can serve as a familiar host, introducing his public to video bits and remote interviews, while the network cheaply produces a family-friendly program that’s a contemporary spin on Lawrence Welk. One that gently leads its audience to their local news at 11.