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Jay Leno: It's Not the Tonight Show. It's, Um, the Ten-ight Show

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The Jay Leno Show, NBC has been telling us all summer, was “comedy at 10,” not simply a second Tonight Show. Instead, what we got was a monologue, a couple taped comedy bits, an interview, a musical act, another interview and Headlines.

Somebody refresh my memory: what was The Tonight Show again? Because clearly I was watching the wrong show all these years.

OK, so at first blush, NBC and Leno have delivered something pretty Tonight-like. Which means that they’re not out to win over critics who liked Letterman better. Instead, they’re giving old Jay fans what they like—for far less dough than producing 10 p.m. dramas—interspersed with enough of Whatever People are Talking About Today to get a churning drive-by audience. (Possibly a smart strategy, but we’ll get to that.) Let’s look at what changed and didn’t:

* Jay comes out on a very brightly lit stage, to what sounds like the theme to an ’80s cop show.

* There was a monologue, a good bit shorter than what we’re used to from the Tonight Show, though it’s possible tonight’s show was trimmed in spots to make room for Hurricane Kanye. A few jokes stockpiled over the summer, about the Cash for Clunkers program (“I made $5 billion!”), “You lie!” and the beer summit. Best joke—”This is not another annoying promo, this is the actual show!”—comes, per colleague Aaron Barnhart, from David Letterman’s Late Show debut. There’s a Bush joke, but no Monica Lewinsky joke. You gotta save something for the second night.

* First taped comedy bit: Leno on Cheaters, about to find out who he’s being cuckolded by. He drives up to see Kevin Eubanks with—a Jay Leno impersonator. I, and about a dozen people on my Twitter feed, thought the payoff would be Conan O’Brien.

* Second comedy bit: Dan Finnerty and the Dan Band serenade a woman at a car wash. A couple funny moments—”Would you like me any better if I whipped out my hose?”—but the long segment leaves me wishing they’d skipped the full detailing package.

* First interview, old chum Jerry Seinfeld, entering through set of glass double doors like the entrance to his agent’s office. He’s funny: “You know, in the ’90s, when we quit a show, we actually left. Not in the Brett Favre, Lance Armstrong double aughts.” Mostly, though, I’m noticing the absence of a desk. Maybe I’ll get used to it, but Leno doesn’t seem to know what to do with his leg (which is notoriously fidgety). I find myself distracted focusing on how far Jay’s pant leg will rise up on his sock.

* An “interview” using cut-tape footage with President Obama, which is about as funny as cut-tape interviews always are. Leno produces a fruit tart to get the answer “tort reform,” then smears it on his own face. I check my interview notes with Jay Leno, who did in fact literally tell me he was never a fan of the “throw a pie school of comedy.”

* The Kanye! I have to give it to Jay here. Yes, getting Kanye West to cry by bringing up what his mother would have thought about his acting like a jackass on MTV may have been disproportionate to the crime. But it’s a totally unexpected question, leaving West silent. In this sense, the question may have been too good—Jay feels compelled to step into the uncomfortable quiet and let Kanye off the hook. (One weird thing: Jay never sets up what exactly Kanye did—grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift at the MTV VMAs. What is the overlap between viewers who follow Kanye West and those who follow Jay Leno?)

* It’s a moment. Is it a Hugh Grant moment? People will sure as hell watch it online tomorrow. But it was the opposite of Grant’s funny catharsis—it’s uncomfortable and a little sad and then Leno asks him, “Ya ready to sing?”

* And he does, with Jay-Z and Rihanna, and the three of them blow the doors off. It’s a highlight of the show.

* Finally, we get Headlines, which are… Headlines. Did you know there are Chinese restaurants named “Hung Far Low” and “House of Poon”? Hey, Jay! I hear they serve a pu-pu platter! Use it! It’ll kill!

Again, though, what you think of Jay Leno is what you think of Jay Leno. More interesting at this point is how The Jay Leno Show works as a programming strategy, and the first night with Kanye shows an aspect of the show’s strategy that could be brilliant or doomed.

Done the right way, The Jay Leno Show could be The Tonight Show Plus. You get the old fans who’ll follow Jay anywhere. Plus you get a more fluid audience who tunes in for the new comedians and the collection of hot-button guests and acts he’s collected.

The question is: in the YouTube age—though NBC swears the Leno show will be “DVR-proof”—how much of this audience will sit through an hour of Jay, and how many just wait for bits they want online?

Everyone’s asking how well Jay will compete against CSI. I wonder if his biggest rival, in the long run, isn’t YouTube.