With Monday’s debut of The Jay Leno Show, NBC launched a great experiment in low expectations. Readers deaf to the burbling of show-business news—and miraculously unscathed by the network’s $10 million promotional effort—may not have realized the potentially revolutionary deal that NBC cut: Leno harmlessly appears on-air five nights a week at 10 while the network, benefitting from the relatively low costs of producing a prime-time talk show, makes a profit despite attracting a relatively small audience. We the people get to continue not watching NBC. Everyone would seem to be a winner.
Leno, no more unfunny than usual, presided over a set decorated with dark wood and delicate bonsai that evoked horrible memories of paying $16 for well drinks at hotel bars. In one of the show’s superficial attempts to play like something other than Tonight, Leno does without a desk, forgoing the authority a slab of lumber confers in favor of a cozier armchair setup. Thus seated, the host did not so much interview guest Jerry Seinfeld as set up his jokes.
It was also from this perch that he encouraged Kanye West to scourge himself. As all the world knows, West, whose id and ego share a very special relationship, had indulged in some blockbuster boorishness the night before, interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards to declare the girl unworthy of her statuette and leaving the country waif quivering like an offended swan. The hip-hop star, previously booked as a musical guest by Leno, now “wanted to talk.” He hit the stage with his head and his dumb haircut hanging low, posture indicating that he was ready to absorb the blows of whatever moldy vegetables the studio audience might pelt him with. It happened that he received a warm reception, but it was impossible to tell if the crowd was offering cheers of forgiveness or if they were simply delighted to be a part of the scandal of the day.
West, his face bloated with remorse and/or a lingering hangover, did the full grovel. Leno—in a tone indicating a show-biz pro’s horror at West’s disrespect for a member of their guild—went in for the kill with a world-class shaming, asking his guest what his late mother would have made of this. At this point, West went quiet for 15 seconds so that we could hear the little pangs of his little conscience. His absolution was at best tentative. Great stuff! The Jay Leno Show is of course not the “brand-new hour of comedy” its promos claim; it is brand-old to the bone. But the notion of Leno running some combination of pop-culture confessional booth and prime-time torture chamber has some real appeal.