Fall TV Preview 2009

With Jay Leno's 10 O'Clock Show, Viewers Might Find Themselves in a Time Warp

(Hanoch Piven for The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

"Ten o'clock is kind of the new 11:30. When I was a kid, everybody stayed up until 1 o'clock in the morning. I see people now in their 20s and 30s. They just don't stay up late anymore. They have kids. They carpool. They have to get up early . . ."

-- Jay Leno, to TV critics and reporters, about his impending move to 10 p.m.

Is Jay Leno really a 10 o'clock man? And does 10 o'clock even exist anymore, the way it used to? When is bedtime in modern society now? When is Leno time?

Nobody's sure. What's certain is that Leno remains inscrutably popular, defying any market-tested idea of not only "talk-show host," but also "funnyman" and "celebrity," drifting so close now to familiar icon that some ambitious sculptor should be hunting for the mountain out of which to permanently carve a massive mandibularly prognathous likeness.

The chin jokes! They never stop; they only get worse! Just last week the Los Angeles Times compared the jut of the Santa Monica Pier to Leno's chin. When I asked a very wide circle of Facebookers to "tell me anything about Jay Leno" last week, a scientist friend replied that she was eager for someone one day to study his skull. Which underscores the fact that we all watch Leno for different reasons.

The question is not his appeal. It's the time.

Ten p.m. has never received such ink and angst as it has this summer, as network executives, advertising gurus, TV critics and entertainment reporters fret about and prepare for "The Jay Leno Show," which will debut Sept. 14 on NBC and occupy one hour of the grid formerly known as American prime time, five nights a week, 46 weeks of the year. To judge from the hype, Leno's presence on your television before the local news will rip open some fabric in the time-space-TV continuum -- as if that fabric still existed.

Time seems to be the last fixed point in our shared culture, the way a Thursday does not feel like a Monday, the way Friday night and Sunday night seem light-years apart. TV time is fixed the same way TV looks; even in the high-def era, there is the way that the crispness of the CBS bandwidth does not look the same, on the screen, as the slightly more velvety bandwidth of NBC. (Some people swear they can tell the difference between ABC, CBS and NBC simply by the picture on the screen, even in high-definition.)

Ten itself feels very different from 8 (when there is still the possibility of doing something with your evening besides watching more TV) and 10 feels very different from 11:30, when the flossing starts. Ten used to have the glow of two lamps left on in the whole house. Eight used to taste like Hamburger Helper and sound like the dishwasher; 10 tasted like ice cream and felt dozy; 11:30 tasted like mouthwash.

Associations come and go. But time itself is the one thing we cannot customize or set to unique user preferences.

* * *

Jay Leno is a fixed point, too. He is unchanging, agreed-upon. People who love ribald nastiness and cruel irony do not think Leno is funny, but they'll allow that many more people do. So much about him is, on paper, a scrambler: He is a celebrity who has never behaved like one. He loves working like a dog and hates vacation. He loves fast food and hates vegetables and has never had a drink in his life. He loves visiting local affiliates and state fairs and shaking hands. He wears dad jeans. He collects cars. He is apparently madly in love with his wife, Mavis, to whom he has been married for 29 years.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company