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Jay Leno’s Lackluster Primetime Debut

September 15th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Jay-Leno-Show-Kanye

Last night’s premiere of The Jay Leno Show should only intensify the generally accepted notion that NBC is sinking faster than Kath & Kim’s chances of being syndicated. All of the hype and spin control that the last place network doled out for the new show couldn’t disguise the simple truth that it’s basically the late-night equivalent of Later Today.

Remember that show? It premiered in the fall of 1999 with the tagline, “It’s like Today… only later!” It feels like they’ve done the same thing with the Leno show. The tagline should be, “It’s like The Tonight Show… only earlier.”

Every trademark was intact: the run-of-the-mill monologue, the corny sketches and even band leader Kevin Eubanks, guffaws and all. Any attempts to change the familiar format fell flat. The most glaring example is the network’s decision to forgo the traditional desk and have Leno sit with his guests on sofa chairs that are close together. This setup works well for William Shatner‘s Raw Nerve, where the discussions are intimate and deep, but with Leno and his canned interview questions, it’s just plain awkward.

Jay-Leno-Show-Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld was on hand as the very first guest. He scored big laughs by pointing out what a strange choice he was for the premiere, seeing as he hadn’t been on television for 11 years.

“In the ’90s, when we quit a show, we actually left,” he joked. Referencing Leno’s rickety primetime launch, he added, “This could potentially get worse”.

Seinfeld wasn’t kidding.

The awkwardness of the new show reached a fever pitch when Kanye West, currently on his Taylor Swift apology tour, strolled in, looking like a down-cast toddler waiting for his punishment. Leno, who seemed to be straining to take advantage of the commotion caused by West’s antics at the VMAs in an effort to recreate his hot button Hugh Grant moment, asked, “When did you know you were wrong?” The serious tone of the interview quickly went from mildly unpleasant to stratospherically uncomfortable when Leno referenced Kanye’s mother, who died from complications to plastic surgery in 2008:

I was fortunate enough to meet your mom and talk with your mom a number of years ago. What do you think she would have said about this? Would she be disappointed in this? Would she give you a lecture?”

Dead air followed, eventually broken by sniffles from a broken-up Kanye. This is a comedy show? Afterwords, the unstable rapper took the stage to perform with Rhianna and Jay Z. A fine enough performance, but not enough to save the show.

To be fair, I did laugh once during Leno’s standby “funny newspaper headlines” segment, although it was hardly an exciting way to close the premiere. Despite a lackluster debut, The Jay Leno Show brought in big ratings for the network.

Something tells me that once the novelty wears off, viewers will be turning the channel back to CSI (unless they’re driven by Schadenfreude). One line that NBC used in the ads promoting the show is, “Primetime Had It Coming”. At least they tried to warn us.

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