On Monday night, NBC unveiled the biggest risk of the 2009 television season – Jay Leno. Leno may have been hugely successful for well over a decade on The Tonight Show, but giving him an hour a night, every night Monday through Friday or, roughly 23 percent of their primetime schedule, is a huge risk. But, was it any good?
Well, if you liked Leno's Tonight Show (and many people did) then you probably will like The Jay Leno Show. As much as NBC and Leno have said that it wouldn't be the same program, it was close enough so as to not make much of a difference.
The show started off with Jay coming out and greeting fans who rushed the stage and then he quickly went into a monologue about everything that had been happening since he was off the air. Or, in other words, it was the exact sort of thing Jay did on The Tonight Show. Later in the show, he even did a "Headlines" segment; NBC had already made it clear that "Headlines" would be a part of the new show, and while it has been a popular segment, it in no way helped differentiate the new show from the old show.
Even Jerry Seinfeld, Leno's first guest, joked about the new show being essentially the old show continued. It is true that the interview with Seinfeld wasn't conducted with Leno behind a desk as it would have been on the old show, but even Leno wasn't foolish enough to point out that small difference. The interview was a good one, and featured a surprise appearance (via satellite) from Oprah. The conversation was even cleverly steered towards marriage and marriage strife, although the conversation didn't actually get to mentioning Seinfeld's new NBC show, The Marriage Ref, but it did plant the seed for when that show does premiere after the Winter Olympics.
The funniest bit of the night might have been the start of Leno's fake interview with Barack Obama. The piece featured Leno in one shot asking a question and Obama in another, clearly answering a different question from a different interviewer. Much like a taped segment which featured Dan Finnerty (The Hangover) trying to sing to people at a car wash, the Obama piece, which started off funny, petered out by the end.
As promised, the show also featured a more "newsy" aspect, with Leno interviewing Kanye West about West's outburst at the VMAs the night before. West said that he felt bad and apologized for his actions, which West said he realized were wrong as soon as he returned the microphone to Taylor Swift. Leno proceeded to ask what West's mom would have thought of his actions. In what was almost certainly the most true moment of the interview, West failed to have an immediate answer and became quite emotional.
It was at that point that the show was at its best, and perhaps also its most awkward. West eventually recovered and then sidestepped the question, but in that moment, Leno clearly actually forced West to think about what he'd done rather than West simply stating that he was wrong. Leno taking a paternal stance to West was unquestionably odd, and one can't really see Leno having taken the next step and grounding West for his actions, but it did show Leno's desire to ask somewhat tougher, albeit awkward, questions.
In the end, the question still remains as to whether or not a primetime version of The Tonight Show airing five days a week can possibly be successful. It seems almost certain that the show will live and die by the guests on it from day-to-day, but as a primetime platform to promote music, television, and all other manner of things it does seem a good one. It will be very interesting to revisit the series as well as both its and the network's success in six months to a year.
The Jay Leno Show airs Monday thru Friday on NBC at 10pm.