Carson and Barnes Circus, in the 1960s

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The New Jay Leno Show: A Tired and Creaky Format Needs Sharper Material, Less Flash and Furniture ...

TV review: The Jay Leno Show

While I watched the inaugural Jay Leno Show, I had a sinking feeling and wanted to leave. But considering the historic occasion, my heart resolved to solider on. It felt like riding a roller coaster in slow motion. Every time it took a sudden drop (some drops raising well earned laughter), I wondered if we’d make it back up to the next peak for the next deft or lame attempt at whatever. And how I wished in the end, that rather than Leno, the host had been Letterman.

First impressions can be terribly hard to break: The overly active set, lush with color and neon, looks like a shopping mall walk through and seems to compete with Leno himself. He has no desk to call his own anymore, so he sits in a single chair, looking a little lost and lonely. Near the end of the program, he sat behind a receptionist-like desk to deliver a closing comedy bit. That bit, like the program itself, was embarrassingly hit and miss.

Leno scored big with a mock interview of President Obama, and his opening monologue, as is usually the case, delivered a few zingers. Jerry Seinfeld made a wryly clever guest appearance, complete with pull down screen of Lady Oprah talking to Jerry while ignoring Jay.

Two other comedy bits fell awkwardly flat: The first had a comedian romancing a lady at a car wash, staged like a budget production number out of a low-end high school musical. The other bit cast Leno and his ultra laid-back sidekick, musician Kevin Eubanks, in what I take it is a recurring satire about the two being fictionally sweet for each other. More labored than amusing.

Another low point was an appearance by rapper Kanye West, who had just made an unconscionably disruptive fool of himself at the MTV Video Music Awards. There he was, contrite and speechless and ever so apologetic, and likely savoring all of the free publicity his stunt was getting him. And then we had to listen to West's group sour up the airwaves. Not a pretty finish to Jay Leno's first program. But, who knows, maybe a big commercial break.

Leno is, what can you say, a nice guy eager to please. And I am, what can I say, an impatient viewer who rarely ventures at these late night parties beyond anybody's opening monologue. So I might not be the right person to wager a bet on the chances of the Jay Leno Show making it against same-time competition that, according to experts, will be hard to beat. I know this: Leno will have to do better if he intends to hold his own.

And yet ... And yet ... Even though I found the whole thing a bit strained and paceless, I’m going back tonight to see if this shaky ship sails any smoother. The potential is there, that's for sure. But I think Leno needs major retooling. For one thing, he might bring back the desk. That alone could ground him. For another, if the dumb stuff I saw was quasi Sat. Night Live, I'd suggest they return it immediately to the Sat. Night Live dumpster. Otherwise, in the not too distant future, the Jay Leno Show risks becoming, sooner than later, a quaint also ran.

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