09.13.09

The Other Lenos

Tonight, Jay Leno premieres his revamped talk show—but he's not the only game in town. From Alexa Chung to Tavis Smiley, Jon Caramanica goes in search of variations on the form.

This week, Jay Leno premiered his revamped talk show—but he's not the only game in town. From Alexa Chung to Tavis Smiley, Jon Caramanica goes in search of variations on the form.

Whether or not Jay Leno succeeds in his new primetime slot won't be a referendum on the vitality of talk shows.

It will depend on the relentlessness of NBC's marketing, maybe, or the fading steam of everyone else's. It will have at least a little something to do with Leno's capacity for reinvention. And it will fall upon the American audience's willingness to embrace Leno in a time slot in which they are not ordinarily obliged to watch him. It's the difference between eggs for breakfast and eggs for dinner, or the neighbor who used to live next door but has now moved a mile away: you can play by the new rules, but no one would begrudge you if you didn't.

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And it's not unreasonable to think that people want to watch talk shows more than they want to watch Jay Leno, and how lucky are those people that Leno's departure from this mortal late-night leaves no appreciable gap in the chit-chat space. Dave and Craig and Conan and Jimmy and Jimmy remain. (Carson Daly persists, too, unfettered by expectations.) Actors still have homes for their canned stories and film pitches. Zoo directors still have homes to show off their exotic animals.

Kim Masters: Hollywood vs. LenoBut even the appreciable tweaks that, say Jimmy Fallon has brought to the format have done little to alter the fundamental structure of the talk show, or its look: a white man, a desk, a couch, a hope that the trip from one commercial break to the next won't be onerous.

Elsewhere, things are fresher. Talk has become one of the essential formats of the cable era, and many channels have their own entries in the space. And while some play by familiar rules, plenty are experimenting with deconstructions in tone and form. Here are 10 of the most invigorating.

Jon Caramanica writes about music for the New York Times. The former music editor of Vibe, he's written for the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and XXL.