19 September 2009

Leno's new show: more "sit down" than "stand-up"

Well, after all the hype, Jay Leno’s show really isn’t living up to much of it.
I’ve watched most of the episodes this week, and if I were to ask myself for any comment on them, I would say something like, “Ehh, they were OK.” Leno’s last episode of “The Tonight Show” reminded us all why he was so beloved in the first place, and the last bit he did, when he brought out all of the children who had been born to staff while the show was on the air, he ended with the kind of gentle sweetness that separated him from David Letterman in the night time talk world (and in my opinion made him better to watch). 
Leno’s new show, after an entire summer of hyping, premiered Monday night, and featured Jerry Seinfeld, who hosted an awkward and obviously pre-taped interview segment with Oprah Winfrey, which sort of fell flat. Come to think of it, a lot of the non-studio interviews have fallen flat, from Tom Cruise trying desperately to act like a human to Mel Gibson’s creepy, painful and too-long interview from last night’s episode. If you missed it, let’s just say that Mel’s brain has now fully surrendered to madness, and not the charming, quirky kind.
Some of the segments he carried over from the old show, like the bits where he reads headlines or goes over to people’s houses to ask them random things or dress them up to re-enact TV shows or movies, are still funny. A great bit from last night’s show featured Rachel Harris, most recently in “The Hangover,” doing a really funny and biting bit where she redecorated her entire living room with stuff she bartered people for. During that bit, she was like a less cuddly Tina Fey, but just as funny and self-effacing.
Unfortunately, the same standard isn’t applicable to the rest of Leno’s new show. A particular example of this that comes to mind was from last night’s episode, in which actress Drew Barrymore did two laps on a racetrack specially built for the show in a Ford hybrid. The “gags” on this racetrack included cardboard cutouts of Al Gore and streamer cannons. I don’t want to even guess how much NBC paid for the 40,000 square-feet of track for this bit, but it was really, really pointless – in fact, it almost seemed like NBC was creating an unfunny sort of “vulgar display of power” just to demonstrate A) How much money they have behind this show, and B) How far they will go to please a sponsor (Ford). In either case, we lose.
I think NBC made a mistake. Something’s missing from Leno’s show: heart. I think he's going through the motions, and after nearly 20 years on TV, I probably would be at this point, too. Part of what made his original show so successful is attributable to the fact that he was a pick-me-up after the 10 o’clock news, which is nowhere near as funny (except when you make a game of counting KARE 11’s technical errors, of which there seem to have been many lately). Before, he could pick you up in the way a funny guy can, a sort of way of saying, "Yeah, the world's a mess, but some of it can be funny." Now, you get the half-heartedly giggle at half-baked skits just in time to watch the real news that Leno used to skewer.
In my estimate, this show isn’t going to go away anytime soon. But I also think it’s not going to be anywhere near the runaway success NBC was desperately hoping for.

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