The Dichotomy of Spontaneous Familiarity: Reviewing The Jay Leno Show


The Dichotomy of Spontaneous Familiarity

Reviewing The Jay Leno Show

Spontaneity is not Jay Leno’s forte.

That’s really the whole point of Leno’s appeal, at the end of the day – people tuned in at 11:30 at alarming rates because of what they deemed his charming nature, making him like just another part of your nightly tradition. But in relaunching himself as part of the Jay Leno Show, which started tonight on NBC and which will air five nights a week until…well, we don’t quite know.

See, what’s strange about The Jay Leno Show is that they want it to seem spontaneous. They want it to seem like an old variety show, with special guests and different bits and no stuffy desk. So when Leno walks out to his new set, a group of people “spontaneously” rush the stage and crowd around to high five their favourite talk show host for a set period of time. It is true that the crowd seems to enjoy having Jay back, but he’s stuck in a really weird place: he has to appeal to those same viewers while enticing entirely new demographics (who weren’t watching his show before) to tune in. As such, he needs to be appear spontaneous in order to broaden his appeal, and yet at the same time not actually be spontaneous at all so as to appease the crowd who watched him so religiously and who will soon have other options (like CBS’ crime shows, which tend to appeal to the same crowd).

In the end, as a hardened critic who’s on the lower end of the key demographic and who has never particularly enjoyed Leno’s brand of comedy, I wasn’t a fan. However, the problem with the show is that it seemed desperate to try to make me into a fan, a position which was neither spontaneous nor charming, and as such my verdict is clear: on every measurable scale of subjective observation, the Jay Leno Show is an egotistical failure.

But if it turns into an economic success, trust that we’ll be dealing with it for a while.

TIME’s James Poniewozik and I crossed twitter streams with the exact same comment (essentially) early on in the show. The “Cheaters” sketch that started with Leno discussing his relationship with someone unseen falling apart had us both thinking that the joke would be about Leno’s audience cheating with Conan O’Brien, his Tonight Show replacement. Instead, we discovered that it was a far less clever (and downright silly) bit about Kevin Eubanks cheating with a Jay Leno impersonator. Perhaps a few years ago, one could say that Leno was calling attention to his own imitability (put a big grey wig on a guy with a big chin and, effectively, you have a Jay Leno impersonator), but at this point it’s almost egotistical. The joke is, well, not much of a joke at all.

And when Jay Leno spends some time with Jerry Seinfeld in a sit-down interview, and eventually with his fake Barack Obama interview, the potential demise of his show is turned into a punchline. But, it’s not a punchline that feels organic, or even particularly sure-footed. In both instances, the comedy was failing: Seinfeld’s spontaneous Oprah Winfrey bit never really connected without Oprah actually being in attendance (and as James pointed out on Twitter, Jay’s legs were awfully twitchy) and the fake Obama interview was so broad and all over the place (“Tort Reform” seriously gave me indigestion) that the “self-deprecation” feels false. While Conan was someone who was always a bit of an underdog and played the role, and while Jimmy Fallon has a genuinely nervous nature, Jay’s whole appeal is how easy it all is. And we as an audience know that this isn’t some sort of startup, and talk of failure felt like attempts to acknowledge his critics but distracting to his actual audience (which, trust me, isn’t critics).

When Kanye West comes out before his performance with Jay-Z and Rihanna (to nothing but cheers, so no Taylor Swift fans in the audience), Leno’s point from earlier is proven correct: when you are airing every single night, you do get to respond to the news of the day. And in that moment, things actually do seem spontaneous: Leno, perhaps sensing that his prepared material wasn’t quite interesting enough, works with his producers to turn West’s humiliation of Taylor Swift at the MTV VMAs into a tender sitdown interview sure to make the YouTube rounds tomorrow. Leno isn’t here to softball him: he asks when he realized he made a mistake, and then shockingly asks him what his deceased mother  would think about his behaviour, reducing West to tears and providing a pretty genuine moment of emotion. It’s the kind of honesty and clarity that didn’t emerge in the Seinfeld interview (Seinfeld is awkward by nature), but it’s also the kind of situation that is pure happenstance, and not the result of any sort of comic genius.

There’s been a lot of talk about what the ratings will be from tonight, but the numbers are going to be irrelevant: what will matter is where he is next week (when his competition returns to the time slot), and the next week, and the week after. For NBC, this is a cost cutting measure, so they’re going to argue that ratings comparable to their previous timeslot programming (or even less, considering its cost) are acceptable. But the problem is that NBC doesn’t need acceptable right now, it needs a bona fide success. And Jay Leno, pretending to be spontaneous and struggling to appear comfortable, is not going to be the hero they want him to be.

But he did make Kanye West cry, so NBC can at least count on a viral video sensation in the days ahead – my conspiracy theory that Leno put West up to the stunt gains steam.

Cultural Observations

  • NBC tried to claim that this was DVR-proof, in that no one would dare not watch it live. However, when they already have the video of Kanye apologizing online right afterwards, I don’t understand: the only barely topical part of the episode was available for non-viewers immediately, so why would you watch the commercials when you can avoid the entire show and still see the part that’s so topical?
  • Fitting that Leno’s guest on his first episode of his over-promoted show is Jerry Seinfeld, who two years ago was being flogged in the media for the overpromotion of Bee Movie on the network.
  • The Marijuana joke to open the Obama interview was a strange choice until you remember that Leno is desperately attempting to stay hip – he failed, just in case you were wondering.
  • Headlines is simultaneously Leno’s most well-known and his most tired bit, so ending with it feels quite fitting.
  • You’ll notice I didn’t mention the bit with “The Dan Band.” I have nothing to add to that atrocity.


Filed under The Jay Leno Show

3 responses to “The Dichotomy of Spontaneous Familiarity: Reviewing The Jay Leno Show

  1. Maureen O'Connor

    Thanks for your analysis. I have never liked Jay Leno, but I did watch a bit of his first show. I thought the interview with Seinfield was lame. The fake Obama interview was terrible. I won’t be watching.

  2. Good god! Did you see the ratings? 17.7 million viewers and a 11.0/18 share! That’s insanity.
    I couldn’t care less about this show either, but I do have an unreasonable love for NBC so all the power to them.
    I really feel sorry for Conan though. Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly must have known they were going to get screwed, but poor Conan really though he was going to move up in the world.

  3. Garrett

    I listened to you on the /Film podcast. I thought your views on Jay Leno, including the ones here, are typical of critics. You even said it yourself in the podcast. Jay is easily the most edgiest and political comic of the late night comics. True that some of the things (planned blocks) in the first week were off. His monologues are still better and his interaction with guests and people feels natural. The only thing I agree with you is that, it is different that he now has to compete with scripted shows which is different than just competing with old curmudgeon Dave.

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