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09.15.09

The Not Ready for Primetime Player

Not even the presence of a contrite Kanye West could save Jay Leno’s first night from painful dullness.

Kanye West pauses during a nearly incoherent apology for his bad behavior at the VMAs, near tears because Jay Leno has asked what his dead mother might think. The robotically unemotional Leno even touches Kanye’s knee in sympathy. Could it be that on its opening night the new Jay Leno Show broke through to pop-culture relevance? Nah, never mind. That intense, blink-and-you-missed it Oprah-esque moment was a hiccup. Even Kanye, the contrite punching bag du jour, couldn’t save Leno’s prime time show from its destiny: last night’s excruciatingly dull premiere takes NBC another step closer to being geezer central, the warm milk network.

NBC could have saved a lot of promotional effort by naming this five-night-a-week ploy Not-the-Tonight Show (Wink, Wink) with Jay Leno, because of course it is the same old Tonight Show, time-shifted to 10:00 p.m., complete with an opening monologue, Kevin Eubank’s band, and creaky comedy bits like “Headlines” (“Pollution Threatens to Kill the Dead Sea”). The new tweaks are scarcely noticeable. And somehow the monologue was even blander than Leno’s usually are. His brush with topical humor: Obama invites Kanye and Taylor Swift to a root beer summit. (Note to Leno’s staff: do not stockpile summer’s jokes for the fall; you’re comedy writers, not squirrels.)

Leno’s first guest was Jerry Seinfeld, which once upon a decade might have been a major get. Now, not so much. Last night, Seinfeld and Leno sat in armchairs, revealing another part of NBC’s visionary plan: the radical no desk experiment! Seinfeld introduced a video in which Oprah Winfrey talked to Jerry but not Jay because Jerry is the important one; that was the whole joke.

Watch the 5 Best Late-Night Apologies

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And the Kanye interview itself was nearly inept. “Have you had a tough day today?” Leno asked. Here’s a Television 101 rule: take a few seconds to inform viewers what your sorry guest is apologizing for. It’s just barely possible that a few people didn’t know that Kanye grabbed Taylor Swift’s award from her hand at the MTV Video Music Awards because he thought Beyonce deserved it—but aren’t those Twitter-free folks pretty likely to be Leno viewers?

Kanye had been scheduled for a musical performance with Rihanna and Jay-Z, and you have to give the Leno people credit for booking them—the show is at least trying to avoid total geezerdom—and for getting Kanye to sit down and talk. It’s not Leno’s fault that Kanye can be off-the-charts inarticulate and self-pitying. He said, “I was rude, period,” but also that he only wanted to do good in the world and that it’s tough being a celebrity.

Even non-comments like those can be timely, though, advancing the pop culture conversation by addressing the issue on everyone’s mind. Leno did that years ago on Tonight when he famously asked Hugh Grant, caught with a hooker, “What the hell were you thinking?” It was a brilliant television moment, and it set the pattern for the now standard apology tour, but it worked partly because it displayed a quality Leno rarely shows: a sense of mischief.

Without any of Letterman’s crankiness or Jon Stewart’s cynicism (traits that make them distinct) Leno reflects America’s idealized image back at itself. He’s a nice guy, we’re a nice country, let’s all take a little nap.

All great comedians have it. Johnny Carson kept viewers off-guard because a sudden barb might poke though his affable Midwestern manner at any time. In David Letterman, the mischief is so powerful it becomes a kind of gleeful menace. And you could see the danger seeping out of poor Conan O’Brien almost the minute he was signed as Leno’s cautious Tonight Show replacement.

Leno clings more and more fiercely to his nice-guy, regular-Joe persona. On last night’s premiere he apologized for his face being everywhere in promos. An unbearably long routine had Dan Finnerty of the Dan Band as a singing employee at a car wash. Leno has staked his claim to the working-class, salt-of-the-earth demographic. Maybe that’s the secret of his ratings success; it’s not that he’s funny, just soothing.

But there’s something sneakily self-congratulatory about that attitude. Without any of Letterman’s crankiness or Jon Stewart’s cynicism (traits that make them distinct) Leno reflects America’s idealized image back at itself. He’s a nice guy, we’re a nice country, let’s all take a little nap. How entertaining is that?

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There should be twists ahead: we’re promised Leno and guests on a racetrack, and special comedy correspondents including Brian Williams. Tuesday’s guests include firebrand filmmaker Michael Moore. But if Leno couldn’t come through with a galvanizing first show, on a night when he lucked into having the nation’s official bad boy in his spiffy new armchair, the future looks grim. NBC tried to dress up their Jay-every-weeknight gimmick as daring programming, and quickly retreated to something like: it’s cheap, so we don’t need a lot of viewers to make a profit. The Jay Leno Show is just what NBC set it up to be: filler.

Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew. As a film commentator, she has been a guest on Charlie Rose, Today, CBS Sunday Morning and MSNBC.