Jay Leno needs some advice, and fortunately, we have some.
As we've previously noted, The Jay Leno Show, which premieres tonight, is going to be on for a good long while, whether it's good or bad. Whether the public loves it, hates it, or is utterly indifferent to it, it's going to be filling five hours of prime time every week, so it might as well be watchable. And since everyone knows that the best solution to any problem is to solicit free advice from the Internet, we offer the following suggestions to Leno.
1. Stop complaining about NBC. On Sunday night, Leno appeared at halftime of the NBC broadcast of Sunday Night Football to promote his show in a chat with Bob Costas. During a rather agonizing two-and-a-half-minute piece, Leno managed to mention his disdain for NBC three times: once yukking it up that football fans would enjoy his show, which was NBC's "huge Hail Mary pass," once commenting that he'd made NBC promise to stop showing promos, and once "joshing" that he's featuring new young comics because NBC is already looking to replace him, har har. Three times in less than three minutes — and he's been doing the same thing in interviews.
Everyone understands that Leno is put out that he was removed from The Tonight Show. Everyone understands that he's probably feeling pretty smug right now over the fact that NBC is now losing the 11:30 slot to David Letterman, while they were winning it with him. Everyone understands the urge to gloat, to mock, and to keep reminding people that he was done wrong. It's how we'd all feel.
But he's got to stop mentioning it. It's ungracious, it's now very tired, and most importantly, it's not nearly as funny or edgy as he thinks. The "Hail Mary pass" joke came off as painfully weak, and the bit about the network already looking to replace him isn't a joke at all so much as it is the kind of passive-aggressive thing angry spouses say at Thanksgiving right before they get divorced. When approached for this job, he would have been within his rights to tell NBC to stick its offer up the nose of its decorative peacock, but he didn't. He took the job, and he's being paid a lot of money, and a lot of people's jobs depend on him, and it's time to stop tweaking the network and get on with it.
Four more pieces of advice, after the jump...
2. Be a warm, not a cold. Jay Leno has a warm, playful side — it's the side that giggles at the word "butts" in a headline and sometimes jokes around with guests in an appealing way, and it's actually the side that famously asked Hugh Grant, "What the hell were you thinkin'?"
But he also has a chilly, sneering side — it's the side that does most of the "Jaywalking" segments, where all he wants is for you to do something stupid that will make people think you're an idiot. It's mostly designed to encourage the audience to mock people for either a lack of education or a lack of what he considers cultural awareness (it has always seemed to me that they are disproportionately pretty young women, making it a sort of "Laugh At The Airhead" segment). And this side of his personality, when overplayed, cuts directly against the sort of Everyman, I-love-the-little-guy comedy he likes to think he does.
He will do better to keep it light. More headlines, less "Jaywalking." More giggling, less snorting. If you want to be invited into people's homes when there is a lot more competition than there is at 11:30, you can't act like you think your entire audience is made up of idiots.
3. Watch out for making it about yourself. It's clear that the new show is going to feature a lot of stuff about cars, playing off Leno's well-known obsession with them. A lot. The set is made to accommodate them, and there's going to be a regular feature where celebrities race each other. (They keep mentioning that it's a "green" car, as if anybody finds a car race more exciting when the cars run on batteries.)
Celebrities racing each other will be fun up to a point, though it's certainly nothing new. Jimmy Fallon does things like this all the time — he raced Dylan McDermott around the studio in bumper cars recently, and he played beer pong with Betty White. But there are only so many times it's going to be entertaining to watch famous people drive cars. While it's good to flavor the show with your personality, nobody would want to see David Letterman do a nightly segment about Ball State. The show needs to be for the people who are watching it, not the people who are making it, and some of the car stuff could probably stand a reeling-in.
4. Book the guests of today. Looking at the list of guests for the first week — including Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Cruise, and Robin Williams — it's hard not to notice that you're looking at Prominent Entertainment Personalities Of, Oh, About 1997.
Obviously, there's an advantage to booking sort of "evergreen" guests for the first week, and yes, the first night is also featuring a musical performance from Rihanna, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. But that performance seems a little ... grafted on. It doesn't seem like the intent is to feature a lot of hip-hop; in fact, Leno says that it won't have a lot of music at all. There are other people on tap for the week who have current projects bubbling — Drew Barrymore, Michael Moore — but this Seinfeld/Williams vibe, should it continue, is going to make the show seem unnecessarily dusty. Yes, the Leno audience is an older audience, but you don't have to give up entirely on everyone under 60.
5. Have more fun. The single factor that makes Jimmy Fallon's show so much better than many of us expected is that he has a great time. He likes being there, he's happy to meet the guests, he's happy when the guests are funny, he's happy when an audience member participating in a game gets off a good joke, and he just seems pleased to have the job. It kind of ... makes you want to watch him. (This is why his tendency to laugh at his own jokes isn't a problem here like it was on Saturday Night Live. He laughs at everyone else's jokes, too — he just happens to be a guy who laughs easily.)
When you've been doing this as long as Leno, it's got to be hard to have the same goofy enthusiasm for silly games or interesting guests or even a good joke. Honestly, the halftime appearance was hard to watch, in part because the jokes were so bad and he seemed to be compensating by saying them in a louder voice.
He needs to have fun. He needs to seem happy. This, admittedly, is tied back to #1. He seems right now like a really angry guy, and lightening up a little will help a lot.