The rebirth of the Tonight Show—its still-rebirth as sprung from the bullhead of an ungracious Jay Leno—began last night with an homage to The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps, having abetted NBC’s booting of Conan O’Brien and thus tarnishing one of the greatest brands in the history of broadcasting, Jay has developed a taste for defiling American culture and thus arranged to desecrate a much-cherished film. The cold open depicted him awaking in a black-and-white farmhouse, a Dorothy Gale coming to, as his bandleader, other subordinates, and also a slumming Betty White crowded round his bedside. The implication was that Leno’s months away from Tonight and his prime-time sojourn did not represent a disastrous misadventure but rather a magical mystery tour. The bit was no less shameless than we might expect. And no less unfunny. Pay no attention to the man in front of the curtain.
Actually: Was there a curtain? The program was insufficiently engaging to encourage a close consideration of the décor, and anyway, the sets of most NBC chat-show-type productions seem to have been conceptualized by the same committee of interior decorators. From the Bob Costas’ dull Winter Olympics ski chalet to Conan’s old not-all-that-bad New York studio, they slap a landscape backdrop behind the desk and some neutral-colored business-hotel-atrium furniture close by and then head home to apartments designed with far more personality. Leno delivered his monologue flanked by some wood paneling copied after a TV cabinet/armoire in one of those antiseptic business hotels. At the monologue’s merciful conclusion, graphics teased an upcoming taped segment as “Jay Looks for a New Desk.” This bit found Leno entering middle-class homes and joking on antique secretaries and so forth and also gently mocking his hosts on other grounds, at one point laughing at someone’s bucket of KFC, as if his act were any less déclassé and highly processed. At the segment’s merciful conclusion, Jay unveiled his real new desk, the tabletop of which looked, from a downward view, inescapably phallic, which is to say fittingly dickish.
Look, it gives me no pleasure to write that clause—to attack Leno not just as a performer but as a man—but there are in life some principles so worth standing up for that their violation necessitates the punishment of the violator. I don’t hold it against Leno that Jeff Zucker and his management team—”the rat bastards at NBC,” to use a phrase on David Letterman’s lips last night—were so cowardly and inept as to create a debacle that left him its one winner. I don’t even begrudge Leno his ambitions. What rankles is that, in his unwillingness to curb his uncontrolled greed for camera time, Leno was really, really uncool.
Last night, this uncoolness infected the first guest, Jamie Foxx, who capered onto and across stage cartoonishly, like Cuba Gooding Jr. winning a sweepstakes prize or Robin Williams on both coke and a jungle gym. But Foxx had no warmth or heat. And, shaking and spraying a bottle of Champagne, he wasted 750 milliliters of Moët.
The second guest was Olympic champion Lindsey Vonn. In his monologue, Leno had said of Vonn, “When it comes to going downhill, nobody’s faster—except NBC.” This was Leno pretending to bite the hand that feeds him while in fact working on a chew toy after supping on the thick slab of stolen meat that had been handed to him. This was also Leno somewhat unadvisedly uttering “going down” in connection with a sexy guest. On that note, let me take a moment to objectify Lindsey, who hit the stage dressed less than tastefully. She looked like a SoCal airhead hitting some awful L.A. nightclub that’s six months past its prime. She wore a cropped black leather jacket, a tight gold-spangled dress, and five-inch heels she was unsteady walking in, with her teeter-tot steps heightening the trampy aspect. Here’s how dense the Leno Tonight Show was: He asked Lindsey about her famous bruised shin, but no camera moved in for a close-up of her attractive gams. Still, freshly waxed by all appearances, her shins shined in the two-shot.
(Compare Bill Murray’s Monday-night treatment by Letterman’s control booth. Murray had hauled himself onstage on crutches while clad in a parka and boxer shorts. When he showed off a knee healing after an accident, the camera pulled in tight on a gross purple suppurating surgical wound—a nice moment of old-school aggressively weird Letterman. Murray was goofy on painkillers. Dave: “Are you in pain now?” Bill: “Well, uh, I dunno.”)
Back on Leno, Brad Paisley ran through his current hit, “American Saturday Night,” while backed by his band and a grand American flag. I want to be clear that I have no beef with Paisley, nor with the flag, and definitely not with Saturday night, which is all right for fighting. The song itself is a celebration of assimilation and multiculturalism, and it is laudable on those grounds (and within those limited terms). What irked was how those laudable lyrics worked in this context. Paisley marvels that all of us get to enjoy Chinatown and Italian food and Mexican drinks and Dutch beer and, uh, German automotive engineering. “It’s like were all livin’ in a big ol’ cup,” he twangs. “Just fire up the blender, mix it all up.” Great! Another margarita, por favor! But Leno is serving something that, aimed to please as many palates as possible, is the same old pablum as before, the only difference being that it now leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.