Jay Leno's Not-So-Stunning Prime Time Debut

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Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld on 'The Jay Leno Show' i

Jay Leno's first guest, Jerry Seinfeld, marked the occasion by wearing a tuxedo. NBC Universal hide caption

toggle caption NBC Universal
Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld on 'The Jay Leno Show'

Jay Leno's first guest, Jerry Seinfeld, marked the occasion by wearing a tuxedo.

NBC Universal

It's sometimes risky, even reckless, to judge a new show on its premiere — especially a talk show. But there are times when some opening-night trends are just too obvious, and too telling, to ignore. The Jay Leno Show is one of those times.

Here's the biggest thing that's obvious after just one viewing: For all the claims to the contrary, The Jay Leno Show is as close to a clone of The Tonight Show as it can get without being sued. The biggest shifts are in order of presentation, not anything tonal — and I'll explain that in a minute. But basically, Leno's new show is like the old one: monologue, taped comedy bits, talk-show guests, musical performances, headlines.

The biggest change is that there isn't a talk-show desk, just chairs next to one another. That's an even older Tonight Show trick, going all the way back to Jack Paar. But no one expected Leno to reinvent the wheel. It's just that after so many years on the job, you'd expect he'd make a better one.

Leno's best move was his choice of first guest, Jerry Seinfeld, who not only delivered the goods, but showed up in a tuxedo to deliver them. When Leno poked gentle fun at Seinfeld for his formal attire, Seinfeld returned fire by talking about the significance of the occasion. Or, rather, the lack of it. By the time Leno got around to asking about the Seinfeld show reunion that's taking place this season on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld only had time to mention it briefly before being told his time was up.

Leno's other interview, though, was much worse — unforgivably devoid of context, and uncomfortably ill-timed. Kanye West, who was booked long ago to sing a song with Jay-Z and Rihanna, came out beforehand to talk about his behavior the night before. Except Leno never explained what that behavior was — that West had taken the mic from Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards, and complained that Beyonce should have won instead. If you didn't know that context, their entire conversation made no sense.

But even if you did know, it didn't make much more sense. Sure, in a way, asking West what his late mother would have thought of his rude behavior was a tough question — but it wasn't exactly the sort of "What the hell were you thinking?" to Hugh Grant that makes viewers comfortable. The singer was stunned into the same sort of silence Taylor Swift had displayed the night before — and then, after a few more awkward questions and answers, Leno ended the segment by asking for a song. That's bad timing.

The rest of the show, especially for a program with months of advance time to plan, was surprisingly shaky. The opening monologue was OK, but that's Leno's biggest strength. Yet after the monologue, but before Seinfeld came out, Leno turned over his show, and its momentum, to Dan Finnerty, one of many "guest correspondents" who will help Leno fill airtime on his new series.

Finnerty filed a remote piece — similar to a "digital short" from Saturday Night Live, something Leno hopes will appeal to young viewers and go viral on the Web. Finnerty's piece was about entertaining a customer at a car wash by singing songs as her car was being washed — but he sang three songs. Three. The piece clocked in at six minutes, but by my internal TV clock, I felt it was closer to nine. It was an engraved invitation to change the channel — and that was only a few minutes in.

And here's that presentation aspect I mentioned earlier. Usually, late-night shows save their musical acts for last, so if viewers don't like the music, the show's almost over. In prime time, Leno can't do that, because local stations — desperate for a healthy lead-in to their evening newscasts — won't stand for it. So that's why, on the premiere show, Leno saved his popular "Headlines" segment for last. But as a regular viewer, I wouldn't have lasted that long. I would have bolted during the car wash.

David Bianculli writes for and teaches television and film at Rowan University.

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