After an entire summer of threatening to viewers that because they -- the innocent, unaware viewers -- had demanded more comedy in primetime, the network was honoring said request with five primetime hours of Jay Leno every week, NBC launched its Grand Experiment with an episode Shanghaied by Kanye West.
Monday (Sept. 14) night's premiere of "The Jay Leno Show" may have been promoted as an hour of laughter and mirth, but it's hard to imagine any viewer remembering a single punchline or filmed piece of hilarity. People will certainly be talking about "The Jay Leno Show" on Tuesday morning, but not for anything comedic.
No, the topic of conversation around the ol' watercooler will probably involve previously announced musical guest Kanye West coming out before his performance with Jay-Z and Rihanna to issue an apology for upstaging Taylor Swift on MTV's Video Music Awards on Sunday.
The timing was either serendipitous or contrived, depending on your status as a conspiracy theorist, but Leno may not have been buying West's sincerity. So, on the inaugural night of his one-hour infusion of comedy into the 10 p.m. landscape, Jay Leno whipped out the Dead Mom Card and reduced Kanye to incoherent whimpering by asking what his late mother would think of his actions. It was as tough a question as Leno has ever asked in all of his years as talk show host, 50-times harsher than his famous "What were you thinking?" rejoinder to Hugh Grant in 1995.
While Grant's response to that question was stuttery and charming in that Hugh Grant way, Kanye mostly clammed up, perhaps not expecting a relatively recently deceased relative to be a go-to reference on the opening night of TV's newest laughter sensation. Leno, realizing he'd gotten his last complete sentence out of the Grammy-winning star, leaned over and patronizingly patted him on the knee and asked -- in a line that will give race theory scholars food for thought for years to come -- "Are you ready to sing?" Kanye, still shaken, shrugged.
Are you ready to sing?
So was Jay Leno ready to sing on Monday night?
[More thoughts after the break...]
The presence of Kanye West on the "Jay Leno Show" premiere will doubtlessly be a huge ratings boon, which is all that anybody cares about at NBC, but in terms of helping Leno define his show, it was just poor timing. In addition to sucking any levity out of the show, it will instantly throw into doubt its only accepted purpose.
So much for Leno emphasizing comedy and attempting to downplay the role of celebrity guests. When the ratings come in on Tuesday and they're big and the video of the Kanye interview becomes NBC's most downloaded clip, the network is going to go to Leno and attempt to make him do more than that. Somebody's going to look at the things that failed in the first episode -- the comedy -- and the things that succeeded -- the browbeating of Kanye and the subsequent musical performance -- and try to push the format into even more of a "Tonight Show at 10" box. If that happens, as bad as you may previously have felt for Conan O'Brien, get ready to feel worse.
Indeed, the Kanye West apology was the first memorable part of the premiere of "The Jay Leno Show" and the second was the performance by Kanye, Jay-Z and Rihanna that followed. Rihanna looked like a stunning fetish queen, Jay-Z brought cocky energy and Kanye pouted like an eight-year-old who just learned that his school still allowed corporal punishment. On Leno's new stage, all three artist had room to breath and it was one of TV's better non-award show musical turns.
And as for the alleged modus operandi of the show? The alleged comedy?
Well, it was just Leno at his softest and laziest. He began with a self-referential joke -- "This is not another annoying promo. This is the actual show." -- and then went instantly into his usual toothless political humor followed by demo-specific gags involving Wilford Brimley and men who prefer their remote controls to having sex with their wives.
[I find it a bit ridiculous that this supposed Champion of the Common Man, this hater of elitism would tell a joke about Serena Williams going bat guano crazy at the US Open, threatening a lineswoman with bodily harm, and make the lineswoman into the brunt of the joke, rather than the unstable, spoiled millionaire. But that's just me. The texting linesman joke was a dud whether it offended you or not.]
That was followed by a filmed bit, a "Cheaters" parody, in which Leno discovers that Kevin Eubanks has been cheating on him with a Leno lookalike and homophobic banter followed.
I was relieved when Leno introduced Dan Finnerty of The Dan Band, since he's sometimes been known to make me laugh. Instead, Finnerty contributed what seemed like a 10-minute (probably only five) filmed bit built around a song at the car wash. Really, it often felt like the segment was built around pretty close-ups of the car being washed at the car wash, so it felt over-long and fraudulent, in addition to not-funny.
But nothing in the first half of the show was shockingly unfunny. It was just Jay Leno unfunny, which is to say that Leno has never really been my late-night flavor, so he'd have needed to work extra hard to yoke me in in primetime. Then again, with three months of downtime and prepwork, it might have behooved him to come out of the box with better-than-average material, rather than business-as-usual material.
You really never would have guessed that "The Jay Leno Show" was supposed to be something different from "The Tonight Show." Leno's first interview, with Jerry Seinfeld, brought a chuckle or two, but really amounted only to two or three minutes of banter and plug for "Curb Your Enthusiasm." So when Leno promised that the celebrities on his new show wouldn't be doing the same old thing, he just meant they'd be sitting in comfy-looking blue chairs and that they wouldn't have a desk in front of them.
One thing Leno promised that actually did come to pass in the premiere of "The Jay Leno Show" was his insistence that affiliates would like him because he'd save his most familiar comedy bits til the very end. That's why at 10:54, Leno launched into Headlines, the "Tonight Show" segment without any alterations. At 10:59, he read the punchline "The House of Poon" (a Chinese restaurant, one I've been told he's mocked previously), got his roar of approval, signed off, clapped his hands and the news began.
Will viewers return tomorrow night for "The Jay Leno and Kanye West Show"? That might get some attention. How about "The Jay Leno Show"? We'll have to see what that show looks like and how quickly the tinkering begins.
What'd you think of the premiere of "The Jay Leno Show"? Or did you find better things to do instead?