STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
On Monday night Jay Leno makes his big move back to his old job, hosting "The Tonight Show." As many people will remember, last year, NBC moved Leno up to prime time. His new show did poorly in the ratings, and so now he's going back. And Conan O'Brien, who had taken over as "The Tonight Show" host, quit NBC altogether.
The whole thing has been a public relations disaster for NBC, and possibly for Leno. NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes a look at how the fiasco might affect his brand.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Watching Jay Leno is like eating stale Funyuns, says Simon Dumenco of Ad Age.
SIMON DUMENCO: His brand of humor just feels extremely dated.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JAY LENO SHOW")
JAY LENO: It was so cold, Sarah Palin had to cancel a speech because she didn't want to take her gloves off to read.
BLAIR: Stale Funyuns might be OK really late at night, says Dumenco, but not for dinner. And that's what happened when NBC moved Leno to primetime.
DUMENCO: Stuff that kind of worked at 11:35 just didn't seem as funny when you're still wide awake at 10 o'clock.
BLAIR: And a lot of those wide-awake viewers voted with their remotes by turning the channel. Dumenco says TV comedy and the nature of wit has changed - think the irony of Jon Stewart or the cynicism of Bill Maher. And he says Leno hasn't kept up.
But Jawn Murray, who writes about entertainment for AOL Black Voices, sees it differently. He says Jay Leno's brand of humor might not be hip, but it is more mainstream.
JAWN MURRAY: You know, he has a very upbeat sensibility about him.
BLAIR: Of the two late-night brands who will once again compete, Murray thinks Leno's brighter personality will once again beat out David Letterman's sarcasm.
MURRAY: Jay, a lot out of times, stays more relevant when it comes to pop culture and contemporary topics. And he has a very nonthreatening personality.
BLAIR: Jay Leno's image is like the friendly uncle who loves cars and a good clean joke. In the ads for his return to "The Tonight Show," he's driving a snazzy sports car, or high-fiving his fans.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADVERTISEMENT)
DUMENCO: Jay Leno's back on "The Tonight Show," the Monday after the Olympics, here on NBC.
BLAIR: But lately, the nice guy has been accused of bullying Conan O'Brien out of "The Tonight Show" spot so he can take it back.
BILL CARTER: Will that have impact on his fans? It might.
BLAIR: Bill Carter is the author of the book and movie "The Late Shift," about the late-night wars of the 1990s, when Leno and Letterman were fighting for Johnny Carson's chair.
CARTER: There's a sense that he'll do well, but maybe not as well as he used to - at least initially. But Jay is indefatigable. One thing I know about him is he won't let up. He'll throw himself into this.
BLAIR: Already, Jay Leno has acknowledged his brand is tainted. That was during a heart-to-heart with Oprah Winfrey.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")
LENO: I think there's a lot of damage control that has to be done, you know. The only way you can fix these things is to try and do good shows - not be bitter, not be angry or upset.
BLAIR: Jay Leno might not show any bitterness moving forward, but got some pretty good jokes out of being jerked around by NBC, and by his biggest rival.
LENO: And Letterman, Letterman's been hammering me every night - oh, going after me. Hey, Kev, you know, the best way to get Letterman to ignore you?
KEVIN EUBANKS: What's that?
LENO: Marry him. OK? That's the best way.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
BLAIR: The brand strategy for Jay Leno's new "Tonight Show" is anyone's guess. Bill Carter says since it wasn't broken before, they shouldn't try to fix it.
Longtime band leader Kevin Eubanks is expected to leave the show to do more touring and recording. Leno's guests next week include Jamie Foxx, Sarah Palin and the cast of "Jersey Shore."
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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