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This may sound naïve and hopelessly optimistic of me, but I really thought maybe The Jay Leno Show could be something interesting. When he first started hyping the show by saying that he and his staff had rethought what late night talk shows could be and had created what sounded like a missing link between late night talk shows and variety shows (comedians out on the street! Brian Williams dropping in! car races?), it sounded like something I might actually enjoy, regardless of the fact that Leno’s comedy has never done much for me. The late-night talk show is a format that works, obviously, but not so well that it couldn’t stand to have a few innovators take their whacks at it, like Craig Ferguson has turned the staid monologue into something approaching performance art or how the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert team-up has mixed around the traditional elements of a late night talk show to create something more topical and fresh.

So, yeah, Leno’s reinvention of himself as a Middle American goofball who just wanted to get a few laughs by letting you in on the joke that you, like him, are smarter than all those other idiots out there (even some in Hollywood or Washington) wasn’t my favorite host ever, and I disliked his approach to comedy in the last however many years, but he was a guy who had been given an entire strip of primetime by a network in desperate straits and needing to try something new to see what might happen. Given a creative blank check, the guy could reinvent his genre where he might be more of a gentle master of ceremonies to a parade of talented weirdoes.

Sadly, though, what we’re getting is pretty much just The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, sans the desk. If you liked The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (as millions did – any of you in comments?), you’ll probably like this quite a bit. If you found it insufferable, there’s no hope for you here, at least not yet. By its very nature, a talk show like this is sort of malleable in response to public concerns and pressures, so I suppose it’s possible that Leno will let the show become something else naturally, but for now, the show and its host are just going with what worked at 11:30 p.m. and hoping that everyone who watches the show 90 minutes earlier will enjoy that.

Like a lot of talk show debuts, everything here felt a little over-rehearsed. The best talk shows either have a certain quality of insanity to them, as though anything could happen at any moment, or are such well-oiled machines that they pass by with a certain ruthless efficiency of entertainment. Ideally, you get both in the same show (as with David Letterman’s show after all these years), but one or the other works just as well. Since this was an ostensibly new show, even with much of the same crew as Leno had on The Tonight Show, everything tonight must have been tested within an inch of its life, which gave the whole thing a certain airless quality.

Here’s an example of that: The big anticipatory moment here was the fact that Leno had Kanye West on a day after West tried to take the VMA from Taylor Swift and give it to Beyonce Knowles, one of those minor celebrity conflagrations that no less than the president himself commented on (albeit off the record). This was insanely good luck for Leno, in the sense that everyone wanted to hear what West had to say about the whole thing. But because it also occurred in the first episode of the show, the West thing was presented in almost a drive-by fashion, with West coming out to talk for a bit, Leno ambushing him with a question about how his dead mom would have felt about his actions (classy) and then Leno immediately asking West if he was ready to sing. Even though West’s very real tears at the question about his mom proved the moment wasn’t scripted, it felt like it was, as though we had been dropped into the middle of an episode of some show about a rapper who’s realized he’s made some missteps and needs to atone for his sins, as though everyone watching the show would already know what West had done and would immediately be curious to hear what he had to say. So while the moment had some interesting buzz to it, it wasn’t as livewire of a moment as it might have been on a different show, including perhaps even Leno’s old Tonight Show.

The rest of the show was what Leno’s stuff always is: competent and fairly bland. The monologue was filled with all of the jokes that Leno was unable to get in over the summer, like a gag about cash for clunkers and a long series of gags about the health care debate. As always with a Leno monologue, there were a few bits that worked well enough (like a cut from Laura Bush talking about her husband’s mountain biking career to footage of a biker falling spectacularly that was cheap but funny), but this all tended toward the safe and easy. Still haven’t figured out a way to make fun of Obama? Make fun of Biden instead. Need an easy laugh? Go to the erectile dysfunction drug gag!

The rest of the hour had just as little to say about it (to the point where much of it is already fading from my memory). There was an excruciatingly long segment where comedian Dan Finnerty went to a car wash and sang a long, long musical montage to a woman there to get her car washed. Since the show probably banks quite a few of these pieces in advance of air and wanted to pick all of the best stuff to lead off its first week, I can only imagine this was the best piece they had for these pre-taped comedy bits, which does not bode well. (Also painful? An edited piece where Leno asked questions that was mixed with footage of Obama from some interview or another, all culminating with Leno stuffing a tart into his face in response to Obama saying something about tort reform.) Hell, the show even made Jerry Seinfeld feel painfully awkward, as the interview segment with him was stilted and off-rhythm, Leno feeling a little jittery just sitting there in a chair and Oprah Winfrey beaming in like a benevolent god to bestow her blessings upon Seinfeld and mock Leno.

All of this seemed as though it was going to conclude with a performance by Rihanna, Jay-Z and West, a performance that was easily the best thing in the show and electrifying in the way that TV show performances can often be and a really high note for the show to go out on. Instead, that was prelude to Leno’s “Headlines” bit, wherein the local papers of the world come in for gentle castigation over ostensibly hilarious typos. I am not too sophisticated to admit that I’ve laughed at “Headlines” a time or two in the past, but when this is the best you can do for your local news affiliates, well … those local news affiliates might start getting afraid.

Grade: C-

Stray observations:

  • A lot of my problems with Leno have everything to do with the persona he’s adopted to host this show (and The Tonight Show), something I hope to get into more when I review the first week of the show on Friday (since one can never review a new talk show strictly in a vacuum). He seemed a little nervous and jittery tonight, which was understandable.
  • The set for this show looks like my orthodontist’s office did in 1997.

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