Jay Leno Back With A Vengeance

jay_lenoWhile Rachel Maddow does the heavy lifting and zeroes in on Senator Orrin Hatch, dissecting Hatch’s Washington Post Op-Ed, Jay Leno took back late night with RTT News reporting that the Tonight Show host grabbed 6.6 million viewers compared to David Letterman’s 3.8 million, Leno also taking a key demographic to boot.

While Jamie Foxx was a bit over the top Leno’s own persona, especially the joke at the expense of Tiger Woods – that he was into Buddhism “as opposed to what he was practicing before; that was Bootyism” – was hilarious and showed that Leno is ready to fight for the turf that he has ruled for so long.

Letterman has gotten some attention from all this, but Leno appears to be capitalizing on it more, perhaps because NBC may have tied his hands in the development of the 10 PM program which had little sizzle and none of the reinvention that it needed. Leno certainly knows the biz, putting together an Ed Sullivan Show meets a semi-serious Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In would have been a contender, but the 10 PM Leno was flatter than Ann Coulter’s humor. Perhaps how NBC wanted it prior to their possible sale to Comcast…until the Revolt of the Affiliates forced them to change strategy.

Which brings us to the newest comedienne on the block, Leno’s guest on night two: Sarah Palin. The thought of a circus clown as vice president isn’t as daunting as Dick Cheney manipulating the office of the president, but it is still a scary thought. Why do we look at Sarah Palin and even give her the time of day? Why is she #1 in the Yahoo Search as I write this? Because – like they said of Howard Stern in his film Private Parts – we want to hear what she will say next. Leno just let Palin do her thing, he played it safe, but just by landing her over Letterman’s Manchurian Candidate guest, ex-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, well, it’s no contest. Sarah Palin won’t be giving Wanda Sykes any sleepless nights, but she’s far more interesting than a former Governor with too much starch in his face.

And why would Letterman cave in? Isn’t it time to do battle and call in a few favors? If The Pope isn’t available to counter Leno’s booking why not Ozzy Osborne or Tom Cruise or Mick Jagger. I mean, seriously, Mitt Romney is just not going to draw a crowd and Sarah Palin will – for the same reason that Howard Stern will. In fact, the shrewdest move Letterman could’ve made would have been to book Howard Stern and ask him to discuss the psychology of Sarah Palin. Now that would have been riveting television – Palin on Leno, Letterman discussing the guest with the King of All Media.

Nighttime television has suffered severely because the Conan/Kimmel/Ferguson/ (I had to go to Google to find out who is on “Late Night” now…oh, it’s a guy named “Jimmy Fallon”)….because the Late Night wars have nothing serious to talk about. The most compelling TV on at that hour was when they were all taking the you-know-what out of each other like some kind of gangster war…this crime family taking out that crime family…really…has it come down to this?

Leno put together some very sharp jokes which helped make up for the use of this late night formula that is as predictable as the 11 PM news broadcasts on the three major network affiliates. Leno talks Winter Olympics, Letterman talks Winter Olympics. Olympic Gold Medal snowboarder Shaun White talks to Leno, Olympic gold medal winner Evan Lysacek did himself no favors delivering a very poorly scripted Letterman’s Top 10. Ho hum. Makes you long for the days your favorite swimmer was caught on camera smoking a joint.

The late night formula is something we are stuck with. Gone are the days when a David Bowie, George Harrison and Janis Joplin would chat with a Dick Cavett AND perform A COUPLE OF SONGS from their repertoire. Now one must have the latest film star talk about the upcoming movie, some jokes, another film star or comedian and five minutes of music the record industry (or what’s left of it) is trying to sell to the masses. Ho hum.

Leno, Jay can take this thing and run with it. So too can Letterman, David…and as tired as both these talkmasters are in the new millennium…they sure have provided the evidence that mediocre Letterman and Leno works better than Conan, and because of that they can survive.

But the door is wide open for someone to come in with a terrific program and blow them all away. They just aren’t trying very hard for the tens of millions of dollars they are being paid.

That being said, having Leno back at 11:35 is better than NOT having Leno back at 11:35.

Joe Viglione
Chief Film Critic