Tuned In

Jay Leno's Long Nightmare Is Over

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Jay Leno’s transition from primetime failure to once-and-future host of the Tonight Show lasted about a minute and a half. The cold open of his new Tonight Show had him waking up in a sepia-toned sequence—with Betty White, because the Internet loves her—a la Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. (If you had “finds it was all a dream” in your office pool, you can probably still collect.) Then came the monologue, in which Leno said, “I’m Jay Leno, your host at least for a while” and “We were off for the last couple of weeks–kind of like the Russians at the Olympics!”

And then it was back to what could largely have been a Leno monologue from before The Jay Leno Show, right down to a set of jokes about the previous Presidential administration. For a while in Leno’s monologue, it appeared that Jay was not the only one who had been restored. A news item about Dick Cheney’s heart problems led to a string of golden-oldie Bush jokes, as if the former President too had suddenly taken back his old job from the new guy.

Clear message: well, that’s over! Who wants to hear an Alan Greenspan joke?

To be fair, Leno and NBC have a delicate task with the relaunch of the Tonight Show: making a premiere event of something that viewers were watching less than a year ago, without too many awkward reminders of what came between. At one point, Leno referred to his guest tomorrow, Sarah Palin, saying that she’s “never been on a late night show.” Palin appeared last year on Conan O’Brien’s Tonight (as a walk-on, not a scheduled guest, which she was on SNL). But, as we know, Conan O’Brien never existed.

(Incidentally, and maybe I’ve beaten this point to death, but would any of the Leno fans who complained about “that immature Conan O’Brien” care to explain to me the maturity and sophistication of Jay’s “World’s Tightest Pants” segment? Update: For those of you who missed it—extreme tight shot of someone’s wedgified butt crack. I realize I’m losing a lot of the nuance by summarizing.)

Jay did need to be re-equipped with a desk, having ditched that accessory for The Jay Leno Show, and he followed his monologue with a taped bit going door to door to try out people’s desks. Bits where Jay interacts with regular folks are one of his strengths, and the segment paid off sometimes; he found a man eating an ice-cream sandwich in his pajamas and brought in “guests” like Randy Jackson and Adam Carolla (“Thanks for cooking fish tonight!”). On the other hand, the bit also showed off Leno’s puzzling ability to get regular people to laugh at a rich man mocking them for being ordinary, like the woman he made fun of for buying KFC (“Mommy’s a good cook!”).

Jay’s first return guest was Jamie Foxx, who came on amped up and whipping up the crowd to cheer Jay’s return as if he had been hired to play Jay’s bar mitzvah: “When I say Welcome, you say Back!” Foxx notoriously has a lot of, shall we say, energy as a talk guest, and he must have been booked to create a party atmosphere. Before the break, Jay cracked, “Why don’t you take an Ambien, we’ll be right back.”

Jay tossed off the line effortlessly, and give him credit for this: no one can say he is not comfortable in his new-old job. As opposed to Conan O’Brien–who used stagey awkwardness as part of his act–Leno is betting that America will respond to a show that’s comfortable, familiar and pretty much unchanged. And Jay’s easiness behind the desk can be an asset, as he led Olympic skier Lindsay Vonn, charming but a bit nervous, through her post-Games return interview.

As I posted earlier, we won’t be able to know from Leno’s initial rating; there’ll almost certainly be some curiosity tune-in. Nor will we know by the drop-off from that initial rating; it’ll be a while before his, and David Letterman’s, ratings settle in. And the even greater unknown is: if Leno does lose viewers compared with when he was last on Tonight, do we blame the Conantroversy, or just the effects of breaking sleepy viewers’ habits?

On the other hand, a little sleepiness could be Leno’s friend as he returns. The Jaypocalypse and the Team Coco Wars may just not be something viewers want to think about in those last few hazy minutes of wakefulness. All that upset, embarrassment and acrimony was just a bad dream, America. Now let Jay put you back to bed again.