Debut review: The Jay Leno Show (NBC)

When a new movie comes out, it's a fully realized vision and product, and therefore easy to be consumed, talked about and critiqued. A nightly TV talk show is different. It takes time to get its legs and figure out what exactly it's going to be — even when all of the people have done this before and merely moved to a new time slot and/or station (See: O'Brien, Conan; Letterman, David). And yet we expect — nay, we demand — an immediate and final judgment on a new TV talk show. Especially when it's taking up valuable primetime TV programming real estate.
So. The Jay Leno Show. Meet the new Leno. Same as the old Leno. With a couple of tweaks. Are you ready for this? Ready or not, The Jay Leno Show debuted Monday night, with lots of outside expectations hyped even more by the fact that Leno already had Kanye West booked as a musical guest, and would therefore have our full attention as West could face Leno and address his behavior at Sunday night's MTV Video Music Awards.

But first. OK. What was with the muted opening theme song? Were Kevin Eubanks and "the Primetime Band" told to take their old Tonight Show theme and dial it all the way down? This theme sounds less exciting than the opening to The Doctors. Is this what we're to expect with Leno in primetime, that it's really more like Leno in daytime? The images of Leno over the decades also seems like What Would Daytime TV Do? Kinda, sorta, yeah. More on that in a minute.

But first. Leno has to come out and shake the hands of audience members. The Laying of the Leno hands. This is meant to show that he is the people's talk show host, right? Like how Ellen DeGeneres does her little dance up and down and across the audience aisles. Leno will not dance, and we will at least thank him for that. But the Laying of the Leno Hands is a carryover from Leno's Tonight Show, as is the monologue (even on opening night, it's your basic monologue; some jokes worked, some did not, and some were supplemented with lame videos — MORE COMEDY! YOU DEMANDED IT!), and for reasons best left unexplained, Leno has decided to allow Eubanks to interrupt the monologue and participate in inane banter. Eubanks wanted to add to Leno's joke about the hapless Detroit Lions by noting that the Philadelphia Eagles had won, but Leno could have cared less. Not even a word. When David Letterman and Paul Shaffer banter, you not only can tell that there's a longterm friendship there, but also a clear rule that Shaffer will be tolerated but also mocked. As for Leno and Eubanks, they tried to cement their relationship with a "spoof" of the TV show "Cheaters." Leno will not try to convince you that he is known for his acting skills, and perhaps the only thing that prompted a laugh in this bit was Leno cracking up when he suggested that Eubanks was frequenting gay bars without him.

Note: Even NBC could not handle showing us the full monologue again.

Back from the first commercial break, and Leno is still standing front and center. Not behind a desk. This. Is. Different. (OK, not that different) Leno tells the audience that he spent his summer going to comedy clubs and saying "get me that guy" in terms of recruiting more comedy, as way to introduce Dan Finnerty and The Dan Band, who have taped a sketch, "Everything is Better with Music," and launch their premise at a Los Angeles car wash. It starts promising, as Finnerty gets rejected by a couple of customers and has to convince the third, before breaking into song. Vacuum dance = sexual innuendo. Who knew? Everybody knew. That's why the studio audience was laughing. It has its moments, but overall, it's rather hit and miss and you begin to think, how long does it take to wash that car?

When they cut back to the studio afterward, why does Leno seem so uncomfortable? Wasn't this all his idea?

We are almost halfway into the hour, and now Leno is sitting in a chair, without a desk! OMG (Not really) He introduces Jerry Seinfeld, who is sporting a tuxedo for the debut. In their chairs, this very much makes me think of daytime talk such as Ellen or Oprah. Spoiler alert! Oprah will appear on a TV screen. Seinfeld gets off some good zingers about Leno and O'Brien making so much of their "finales." "You know, in the 90s, when we quit a show, we actually left!" Except, of course, for the very simple and obvious fact that Seinfeld is on Leno's show to promote his Seinfeld reunion on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Still, Seinfeld references Brett Favre and Lance Armstrong, and Leno seems to make this seem more like a natural conversation than his panel interviews from the desk. Such as pouncing on Seinfeld's cracking voice as he starts to introduce a bit. Meanwhile, Seinfeld cracks that he could have gotten a better guest, such as Oprah. Cue the satellite (or taped?) interview with Oprah on a TV screen.

Oooh. I hope they can also shoehorn President Barack Obama in this hour somewhere. They will. Amazingly, Seinfeld also brings up his wife's lawsuit about copying cookbook recipes — she did get the suit dismissed, so it was a win, but why bring this up?

Using 60 Minutes footage with Obama from Sunday for a fake interview get (this is going to change television forever, except for the fact that this is not new nor is it really funny or geez, why is this on right now? are we filling time already? or is this what NBC was touting as MORE COMEDY) Maybe they meant Mohr Comedy. Where is Jay Mohr when NBC needs him? Over on CBS. Let's move on. Should we mention the Geico ad that wasn't a Geico ad in this sketch? We just did.

Look out. Leno is sitting down again. Are you sitting down? Because Leno has gotten Kanye West to sit down before he sings or raps or auto-tunes (though Jay-Z has declared the death of auto-tunes) and confront Leno. "A tough day today?" That was his first question. Not quite "what were you thinking?" In fact, Leno did not ask that. He did get the chutzpah to ask what Kanye's dead mom would think! Is Leno Baba Wawa now!? Look out, BABAWAWA, Leno is coming for your teardrop trophy. What a heartless way to segue into the musical number.

Rihanna is more covered up for this performance than she was for Jay-Z's 9/11 charity concert at Madison Square Garden, so for that, this already is a fail. I like the fact that they all sounded as though they sang live in both concerts (as opposed to the lip-synch fest that was the MTV VMAs). But this song has become an anticlimax after West sat down with Leno, instead of the ooh, lookie here moment as it was originally hyped. West knew enough not to rap "No homo" in his portion of the lyrics, too. There's an early toss to "your late local news" before the final segment. Chuck and Sue here in New York City clearly seem pleased by this development, as you can tell by their lack of any accidental F-bombs.

And we're back. Where did this desk come from? What could possibly be going on? Time for HEADLINES. We're going to need a bigger desk. That was a great white shark joke, from the 1970s. Because we feel for you for staying with us through this. Oh for one. #2 is a typo, not great. Alpo on the menu? That gets a laugh. This is supposed to be the comfortable thing that we all loved and missed and so it has been saved for last, where we now can look upon it and go, we missed this? Leno whips through some of these so fast that we barely have time to notice how inconsequential they are, in terms of bringing us MORE COMEDY. This is not available as a separate clip online, because The Jay Leno Show is DVR-proof. But you can watch the whole thing all over again on Hulu.

We can only hope and pray that it gets better from here.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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6 thoughts on “Debut review: The Jay Leno Show (NBC)

  1. I’ve got to say, Sean, you really nailed this show. Good work.
    I really can’t wait for your big Montreal roundup!

  2. Harsh. But fair. I fell asleep, just like I did when Jay was doing Tonight. Somethings never change…

  3. I agree with just about everything you said. We had similar opinions on our Comedy Nerds podcast. Only one listeners told us we should “go die somewhere.” I guess some people just love Leno (or my death). Also on a side note, Seinfeld was wearing a monitor in his ear during the interview. I’ve never seen an that before.

  4. Thanks for the write-up. The “laying on of Jay’s hands” and Eubank’s return both seemed to flow against the direction of comedy. The monologue seemed to be a bit meatier than usual – they did have weeks of current events/jokes to choose from. Caught the headlines, which were dece – Alpo was good, as you mentioned – but ending with a cut-out from last month’s New Yorker (Lady with the two cabbages in front of her)? Probably not totally unaware as a publication of the picture’s implications.

  5. The show sucked big time. I won’t waste my time watching that rebaked tonight show again. Sorry Jay, but maybe you should stick to cars and such.

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