While the media were atwitter this week with the unveiling of Max Baucus’ health care plan, average Americans were more invested in the unveiling of NBC’s The Jay Leno Show. Or at least, NBC hoped they would be. In reality, however, the show the Associated Press has described as a “grand experiment” has been met with declining ratings and searing criticism, the most common of which accuses Leno of rehashing his Tonight Show shtick and of simply not being very funny.
Though that kind of reception probably doesn’t mean Leno will be winning any ratings battles in the near future, the jury is still out on whether the show will be the paradigm-shifting vehicle that many thought it would be. Indeed, because it costs NBC so much less to produce than a typical drama or sitcom, The Jay Leno Show doesn’t really need to win any battles to be a sound investment; it can continue to be mediocre and still promise to make more money on a smaller investment.
If the dollars-and-cents game that NBC is playing with Leno isn’t surprising, what is curious is just why Leno is still on in the first place. He cut his teeth as a stand-up comic and then as a late night host, so it’s inevitable that anything he does will be deeply indebted to those forms of entertainment. Besides, in an era where The Daily Show and The Colbert Report walk a fine line between satire and news, Leno’s staid monologue seems to bring a too heavy sense of history with it. In other words, the show’s quotient of humor is less important than the fact that it seems strikingly out of touch.
Most people probably know that Leno inherited his Tonight Show gig from Johnny Carson. While Leno certainly has his own brand of humor, he (along with most other late night hosts) is essentially a comic cut from Carson’s mold. What is slightly less well know, however, is that Carson himself inherited the Tonight Show, in 1962, from Jack Paar who had taken the reins from Steve Allen in 1957. To get to the origins of the program we have to go all the way back to 1954, a year when owning a television was still something of a minor extravagance.
What this means is that as Leno stepped onto his new set this week he also tapped into a long and storied lineage. If he were a politician or a university professor, that connection to the revered past would probably be a good thing. As a comedian, however, it’s more of a liability and undermines NBC’s claims that the show would be game changing. Of course, it’s true that no network has ever aired a show like Leno’s during primetime. It’s true that NBC could set an industry standard if Leno succeeds. However, it’s also true that The Jay Leno Show is less a revolution than it is the encroachment of a very old and arguably outmoded entertainment model into the ten o’clock hour.
At the heart of this debate lie questions about the relevance of primetime TV itself. With the typical American working more and making less than ever before, consistent evenings in front of the TV are becoming more and more a thing of the past. More importantly perhaps, the Internet has mostly liberated people from the network schedules. When I went to watch The Jay Leno Show for this article, for example, I didn’t sit down on the coach with my family and the TV. Instead I watched several episodes back-to-back on Hulu at two in the morning. Because the revolutionary aspect of the show was supposed to be when it was airing, it’s no surprise that I, like many media critics, got hung up on the lack of genuine comedy in the program.
None of this is to say that the late night variety show is dead, or that no one watches TV on a television. It’s not, and many people do. What’s more, hosts like Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson manage to milk a surprising amount of humor from the Carson-Paar-Allen formula. Still, in a world where people can watch “Lonely Island” and “Adult Swim” videos on YouTube whenever they want, the idea that one part of the day is the “prime” time for TV seems at least a little archaic. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter if Leno is on at nine, ten or midnight; all that matters is if the content strikes a cord with the public.
Whether Leno succeeds or fails, adapts or stays the same, we’re likely to see his show for at least a few years. NBC is contractually committed to stick with it and Leno’s standup, his bread and butter over the years, once made him the king of late night. Furthermore, a great many people (especially baby boomers) find Leno hilarious, no matter what the critics or the ratings say. Yet, regardless of whether this newest project is Leno’s coup d’état or coup de grâce, he may ultimately be fighting a losing battle against the future.
Jim Dalrymple is Rhombus’ newest pop culture correspondent. He will cover the world of television, movies and music — all with decidedly good taste.
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