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Leno Goes Prime Time

September 15th, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

All the greats have done it: The Rolling Stones, Brett Favre, Lance Armstrong … Cher. This week, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno came out of retirement to return to network television on “The Jay Leno Show. His mission: to give NBC a ratings boost and get more viewers to stick around for the 11 o’clock news. On a teleconference last week, Leno told reporters he was still felt pretty laid back about his new gig, and that it was “not as nerve-wracking as taking over for Johnny [Carson]” when he became host of “The Tonight Show” in 1992.

The decision to bring Leno to primetime has been full of controversy — first there was speculation that he’d leave NBC to host another late-night talk show to compete with Conan O’Brien; more recently, there has been talk that Leno’s foray into the 10 o’clock hour will pull top-tier guests away from O’Brien’s Tonight Show. It’s too early to tell how Leno’s five nights of comedy will affect ratings. In the meantime, the Hulu Team took a look at the new show’s format to see how it stacks up against his No. 1-ranked late-night format. — Rebecca Harper (rebecca.harper@hulu.com) for the Yahoo! TV Blog

What Stayed the Same: A-List Celebs
Just as he did on The Tonight Show, Leno is still booking top-tier guests, including Jerry Seinfeld, who’s currently promoting a Seinfeld reunion that’s coming to HBO’s But Leno’s also out to prove that he can pull in the big names in the midst of controversy. See: last night’s interview with Kanye West coming off the Taylor Swift debacle during the MTV Video Music Awards. Much like he did with actor Hugh Grant in the midst of a 1995 prostitute scandal, Leno showed he wasn’t scared to ask the tough questions. In the end, West seemed repentant and Jay came off as a good guy who’s willing to make his guests sweat a little, but only when appropriate. Was West prepared for Leno’s questions? Probably, but his apology came off as the real deal.

What’s New: No Desk
To separate himself from the late-night talk show hosts, Leno said goodbye to the oversize desk he used to sit behind, opting instead to spend most of his airtime on his feet. The new format is broken up into several acts — standup, comedy bits, interviews, musical performance, headlines — and Jay stuck to center stage for much of that. A conversation area set up with two chairs for himself and a guest, such as Seinfeld. But the joke was on Leno during Seinfeld’s interview as the comedian proved that he could reel in a major star like Oprah.

What Stayed the Same: The Monologue
In the three months since Leno left late night, he’s toured the country performing standup, and just as he did on The Tonight Show, he kicked things off with an opening monologue. Though a few of the jokes called on some older headlines (the government’s Cash for Clunkers program, for instance), Leno came off loose and confident as he poked fun at everyone from Serena Williams and Dick Cheney.

What’s New: More Comedy Bits
In the premiere episode of The Jay Leno Show, Leno told the audience he spent much of his time off taking in comedy acts all over the country. We can expect comic sketches to be a regular occurrence — Leno let us know that comedienne Rachel Harris will be sharing ways to cut back spending, for example, while writer Liz Feldman will be teaching senior citizens how to use Twitter. On opening night, Leno called in Dan Finnerty, lead singer of The Dan Band from The Hangover. (Finnerty put on a great show in the wedding scene at the end.) Finnerty took his boom-box and two backup singers to the local carwash and serenaded an unsuspecting woman who simply wanted a cleaner ride. Though she was somewhat reluctant about this free concert, she wound up being a good sport.

What Stayed the Same: Crowd Pleasers
The former King of Late Night had a number of bits that came up regularly while he hosted The Tonight Show, and many people wondered if we’d see any Headlines and Jaywalking in primetime. Fear not, because Headlines wrapped up the show on Monday night, and promotional teasers indicate some Jaywalking moments are on the way. It turns out, NBC wants some comedy to lead into the 11 o’clock news for the local affiliates, so we’ll see less music (Leno says he’s focusing on unusual pairings such as the first episode’s Jay-Z-Rihanna-Kanye West matchup) and more laughs, instead. So headline writers, beware! Leno’s got his sights set on you.

What’s New: More World Leaders
OK, this one’s a bit of a stretch, but Leno told reporters that we’ll be seeing more world leaders on his new show. Instead of asking hard-hitting policy questions, though, he says he plans to ask celebrity-minded questions instead. We suspect these high-profile interviews will be similar to this spliced up sit-down with President Obama, where Leno’s editors do a great job of piecing together a Q&A session with the nation’s leader. Is it for real? Absolutely not. But it’s funny.

Which Tonight Show with Jay Leno bits do you hope to see make it to prime time?

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