TV Review: Hank Stuever on the Premiere of 'The Jay Leno Show'

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

They said "The Jay Leno Show" wouldn't feel like going to bed really early, that it would feel new.

But it's like going to bed really early. It feels old. For a lot of people, "The Jay Leno Show," which premiered Monday in its game-changing 10 o'clock weeknight format, it might feel perfectly comfy.

There was an uncomfy moment with a chastened Kanye West, who 24 hours earlier acted like a jerk by interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards. "What would your mom have said about this?" Leno asked the rapper, who sat frozen at the mention of his mother, who died in 2007.

What was weird about this was how quickly West stammered through his repentance ("Obviously, I deal with hurt"), saying he needs to take a vacation from performing and the celebrity grind under which he lives, then recovering immediately to perform with Jay-Z and Rihanna, proving that really, after all the talk, Jay's show is still a place to promote your product, your song, your movie -- and in special guest Jerry Seinfeld's case, your "Seinfeld" reunion on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Leno and his producers kept saying it wouldn't be like this, this usual shill game.

The jokes are the same. (Why wouldn't they be?) The theme song is different but the same, accompanying opening-title pictures of Leno as a young man, the all-American boy who grew up to love cars and tell jokes. The guest spots take place sans desk, in easy chairs. Seinfeld came on and made playfully condescending jokes about the Leno "farewell" show in May on "The Tonight Show": "In the '90s, when we quit a show, we actually left," a tuxedoed Seinfeld said. "But not in the Brett Favre-Lance Armstrong double-oh's."

There was Oprah shtick. There was Obama shtick. There was singing car-wash shtick provided by the creepily talented lounge stylings of comedian Dan Finnerty and the Dan Band (the show's cleverest bit).

The jokes on opening night were about everything you'd expect Leno to tell, the funniest of which were about Vice President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi looking, while perched behind President Obama during his health-care speech to Congress last week, "like the couple sitting outside in bathtubs in the Cialis commercial," and about his own hype:

"Before we get started," Leno said at the opening -- after he came out for awkward-looking high-fives with audience members on his supposedly more intimate set -- "this is not another annoying promo. This is the actual show."

It is. Armchair critics almost never talk about whether Leno's good, and instead acknowledge his universal appeal, his role in the national chitchat and buzz. Talk about Leno of late has mostly been about ratings and affiliates and formats -- subjects that really matter not a whit to the viewer. The viewer wants to . . . laugh.

So was it funny? Was it new? Was it worth all that? Will it last?

Amid some lame-same comedy bits (including a "Cheaters" spoof where Leno discovers and confronts his bandleader, Kevin Eubanks, in a park with a Leno impersonator, which felt exactly 10 years old, and the "Headlines" sketch, which either does or doesn't make a case for saving newspapers), certainly there's potential. Nobody makes it seem as though everything's hunky-dory better than Leno. No civility crisis here: Life is merely always ridiculous.

But what are we looking for in all this -- a new network business model or passing entertainment? Or some sort of variety show from our imagined glory days of vintage TV, something that will refocus our ideas about comedy, celebrity and frivolity?

Anymore it's hard to tell. Leno, of course, would say he's but a humble funnyman and there is no pressure for "The Jay Leno Show" to do anything other than fill the air with mirth.

But we've been trained by the infotainment industry for nearly two decades now to believe in a fictive epic battle known as the "late-night wars," with its ancestral Jack Paar and Johnny Carson cave etchings, a story fomenting itself since David Letterman's exodus from NBC and Leno's ascendancy. This story unfolds as if any of us are the network honchos, as if our own salaries and stock investments were somehow on the line: Is Conan O'Brien any good at Jay's job? Was Jay better than Dave? What are the numbers like after Jimmy Kimmel comes on after "Nightline"? Can you even wait to find out?

No. So set aside the ratings game and instead engage the viewer on the subject of Leno's talent. Then what sort of conversation are we having? Leno's funny, but in the safest way. He's adheres to the center of the exact middle road, so it's wrong to expect a revolution here. He has all the draw of buy-one-get-one-free smoothies. His comedy is bubble-wrap; its appeal needs no explaining. He goes with Dan Brown novels and Marriott Rewards points and repeat viewings of the cinchy CBS crime procedurals he now finds himself programmed against: Who doesn't like all of those things?

And who won't watch Jay when nothing else is on, or when the nurse won't come change the channel?

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