NBC spent millions hyping the debut of “The Jay Leno Show,” which appeared in the coveted 10:00 PM slot for the first time on Monday, Sept. 14. TV viewers accustomed to the 11:35 “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” wondered what the variety and talk show would be like in prime time. The answer they received was perhaps predictable, as the new version is not much different from what Mr. Leno made of the show in his 17-year run after succeeding Johnny Carson in 1992. The basic format was similar, with an opening monologue, zany comedy segments, musical guests and sit-down interview segments with celebrities. The comedy segments in the first week included perhaps more raw silliness than usual, but featured a familiar feel: Jaywalking (“person on the street” or “knock-on-the-door” interviews), wacky headlines, skits with clever musical satire, and so forth.
Those of us who use late-night variety shows to sooth our spirits as we prepare for bedtime will have noted a few novelties. The new version of Leno’s offering usually includes a final comedy segment just before the transition to local news at 11:00. This leaves veterans of late-night viewing wondering whether network executives have figured out some psychological strategy here that provides for a smoother transition from light entertainment to the brutal sting of news that ordinarily features tales of gruesome crime and disheartening corruption. The decision to conduct interviews with Jay’s guests in matching comfy chairs, as opposed to the convention of conversing across a desk, also introduced a new look. But most of the remaining changes are cosmetic. For example, renaming the “Tonight Show Band” the “Prime Time Band” does not change the fact that the ensemble features the same line-up, including Jay’s comedic foil and interlocutor, lead guitarist Kevin Eubanks.
NBC and Leno lined up a particularly stellar array of first-week celebrities with whom to chat. It is hard to get more A-list than Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Cruise, Halle Berry, Robin Williams and Drew Barrymore. Any viewer who had to miss some of these appearances because of the earlier start time (that is, anyone with an actual life to conduct), will find entire shows or preferred segments of shows easily available on the network website www.nbc.com. Having to sit though brief streaming advertisements before the segments roll is a small price to pay for this valuable preparation for water-cooler conversation the next morning at the office.
The first night of “The Jay Leno Show” featured a rarity. Easy-going, controversy-shy Jay actually made a guest uncomfortable. This happened when the host, with a convincing dose of sincerity, asked hip-hop artist Kanye West what his recently deceased mother would have said about West’s outburst at the MTV Video Music Awards the previous weekend. Everyone in the hushed studio audience seemed to know that West had rudely interrupted the acceptance speech of award winner Taylor Swift by climbing on stage uninvited and praising the vocal work contained in the losing entry by Beyoncé Knowles. It was an exceptionally uncomfortable moment, and a type of interchange not likely to be repeated, for better or worse, even if Leno continues in this format for another seventeen years.
If Leno putting West on the spot was the most poignant moment of shaming during this show’s premier week, then Jerry Seinfeld provided the most sarcastic comment, directed at the host who happens to be (and I hope still remains) his close friend. On the very opening night, Seinfeld referred to the hype that surrounded the final episode of his own runaway hit comedy over ten years ago now. Seinfeld could not resist adding the sentiment that, back then in the 1990s, when a show ended, it actually ended, not just moved to a new slot. A bit of a zinger there, even if a good-natured one. Viewers well know that life in the entertainment industry is full of false retirements, whether we are witnessing yet another Barbara Streisand farewell tour or the sight of aging athletes like Michael Jordan or quarterback Brett Favre trying out yet another team as they advance toward their forties or beyond. By any calculus, Leno is entitled to keep marching on as long as he can muster the enormous energy required to keep America laughing, at whatever hour of the evening.
In that same interview with Leno, Seinfeld added mockingly that he will soon announce his own new talk show to be aired at 9:00 nightly. This throw-away line actually provides an opening for some serious consideration of new trends in American entertainment. Prime time being invaded by talk shows is no small matter, as even this small opening has the potential to alter the larger landscape of familiar patterns of network programming. This may have serious implications for network advertising budgets, the vicissitudes of the Hollywood TV production industry and the demand for various types of screen writers. It may also portend wider cultural patterns regarding how Americans spend their entertainment time and what they can expect when they turn on the television at any given hour of the day, whether on the traditional networks or on cable outlets. The Leno show itself may not be that much different at 10:00 than it was at 11:35, but the success or failure of this experiment may signal important and far-reaching changes in American viewing habits.