The argument against reviewing a talk show early on in its run is that it’s impossible to say fairly what the broadcast will become once it settles into its groove. These things take time. Conan O’Brien, for example, wasn’t the smooth, wacky guy we now know when he started out: He was awkward and wacky.
But Jay Leno is different, and it is possible to pass judgment on The Jay Leno Show now. Why? Because what Leno is doing is his version of The Tonight Show 90 minutes earlier. With no desk.
On his first night, The Man Who’s Revolutionizing Prime Time lucked out by having booked Kanye West before the rapper’s VMA scandal. By night 2, however, we knew what we were in for over the long haul: monologue, stunt/sketch, guest comedian/correspondent, the major interview, and, to lead into the 11 p.m. news, a final stunt/sketch such as funny headlines. the formula is already rigid — NBC might as well brand it Law & Order: Jaywalking. The blandness is lulling whenever it isn’t irritating. Unlike David Letterman, for example, Leno is assiduously apolitical. He praised guest Michael Moore’s new anticapitalism movie because it attacks both parties. He did a jeering joke about ACORN after it seemed that dislike for the organization had spread beyond just the Fox News audience.
And yet, and yet… One thing I notice in the comments section of my Watching TV blog is the repeated sentiment ”Jay Leno isn’t funny; never was.” I disagree. Leno was a really funny stand-up comic in the days when he’d show up on Letterman’s show and they’d do their patented ”What’s my beef?” routine. I saw him at a comedy club in Philly years before he got the Tonight Show gig. Leno on stage was really sharp, quick, and yes, witty. (I’ll bet he still kills when he goes out and tries new material in comedy clubs these days, too.)
I think Leno’s talent has simply been stifled, rendered inert, from being in the wrong job for so long. It’s as though he saw late-night hosting as the next logical step in his career, and it turns out it wasn’t — logical, that is. He’s never seemed fully at ease as a host; it’s when he’s out of a suit and tie, wearing the denim shirt and riffing on things, that he shows how funny he can be.
End of my defense of Leno. As if he needs my help: Based on the consistency of his work in the first week (hey, just because I found the show unamusing doesn’t mean millions of other folks did), I’m convinced that even though Leno’s numbers dropped from the premiere, they will remain solid for quite a while. Which is definitely not the same as having the last laugh. C