Leno's return to 'Tonight' gives off victorious air

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Of course Jay Leno opened his return to "The Tonight Show" Monday night with an "it was all a dream" gag, waking in a sepia-toned, Dorothy delirium from "The Wizard of Oz." Because it was sort of like a bad dream -- a national late-night hallucination -- in which overpaid funnymen retired, said farewell, switched time slots, spent millions on new studio sets, said hello, launched middling-to-awful new shows, then spoke badly of each other and their employer. All to bring Leno back to his old job.

"There's no place like home, there's no place like home," the 59-year-old comedian mumbled, surrounded by his friends, bandleader Kevin Eubanks and Ross the Intern. ("You were there, and you were there ...") Then, in the current imprimatur of Facebook-era coolness, a cameo by 88-year-old Betty White, who made the night's first slam at NBC: "Look at this ratty-ass barn," White said. "I can't believe you're doing the show from here."

From his opening monologue ("I'm Jay Leno, your host. At least, for a while"), to a comic routine where Leno "searched" for a new desk by going door-to-door in a Burbank neighborhood, to guest Jamie Foxx leading the audience in a chant of "When I say 'welcome,' you say 'back!' Welcome! Back!" the show gave off a victorious air.

Almost nothing was said about "The Jay Leno Show," NBC's disastrous attempt last fall to reinvent the talk-comedy format five nights a week in the 10 p.m. slot. And there was not a peep about former "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien, who lasted a little more than seven months in the job. After a sharp drop in ratings, O'Brien taped his last episode on Jan. 22, and walked away with millions of dollars.

It all seems like ancient history now (or perhaps NBC would like it to seem that way), but something seems off about Leno being back in the job. Nothing's changed. For some viewers, that's just fine. For others, it's a bitter pill, made more so by NBC's "Tonight Show" advertisements during the Olympics that featured a smug-looking Leno and snippets from the Beatles song "Get Back" ("to where you once belonged"). As with all things in the so-called "late night wars," the ratings will determine where bedtime America really stands.

In the end, Leno is talented in the most mediocre of ways, and this gives viewers great comfort. His big win here is a win for the middle of the road. There were the easily digested topical jokes, about Alan Greenspan, about Dick Cheney's heart problems ("That sneer will be back on his face in no time"), about the end of Tiger Woods's Gatorade contract ("Apparently, he was seeing at least five other sports drinks"), about the new chocolate-flavored Cheerios. There was a fawning interview with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. (Paving the way for an appearance by Sarah Palin on Tuesday night.)

There was nothing new, but there was a very happy man on stage. When Leno ripped a sheet off his new desk, he bent down and kissed it like a long, lost friend.

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