When Jay Leno played the Palace last April, his stated purpose was to provide a "comedy stimulus plan" for unemployed Detroiters by appearing in concert for free, and no doubt his motives were sincere. But he was also here to rehearse for next week.
The Hardest Working Man in Show Business has been tweaking his act relentlessly this year, performing almost weekly stand-up shows at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Vegas, at his old weekend haunt, the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif., at another free "stimulus" show in Wilmington, Ohio. He's been continually testing punch lines, seeing what the public relates to and finds uproarious. Because even though you still can see him for free when The Jay Leno Show premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on NBC (Channel 4 in Detroit), he and the network know the stakes have never been higher.
Despite 17 years of late-night domination as this generation's Johnny Carson in hosting The Tonight Show, Leno understands that entering prime time's uncharted waters with an hour-long comedy show five nights a week represents the biggest news of the fall TV season and the greatest gamble of his illustrious career. TV networks -— NBC in particular — have conditioned us to expect ambitious, sophisticated scripted dramas in that hour before the local news; consider Law & Order, ER, L.A. Law or Homicide: Life on the Street. We're not accustomed to funny at 10 o'clock. NBC has been languishing in fourth place among the networks most of this century, and one could argue the Peacock had to do something to shake up the status quo. But the reasons behind The Jay Leno Show run deeper than that.
First and probably most important in these harrowing economic times, it's cheaper. The average hour-long drama costs around $3 million per episode to produce; Leno's show could cost less than $2 million for the entire week, with virtually no reruns. Beyond that, when NBC promised The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien, whose appeal I have yet to fully understand, it effectively made Leno a free agent. Rival ABC would have broomed that no-talent jerk Jimmy Kimmel out the door like a dust bunny to make room for Leno to compete against his former show in late-night. NBC knew it. And since late-night is one of the few time periods where NBC makes money, keeping Leno in the fold was a strategic necessity.
Predictably, NBC has gone to extraordinary lengths to promote Leno's arrival at 10 p.m. You haven't been able to click on Channel 4 for months without seeing a Jay Leno Show commercial. His celebrated chin has been jutting into print ads, the Internet, even movie theater trailers and popcorn bags. The ads suggest (unless they're being used to deceive the competition) the new show will duplicate many elements Leno established on The Tonight Show: the topical, "breezy" 12-minute monologue that typically takes him and his staff six hours to write, and such segments as "Headlines" and the cretin competition "Battle of the Jaywalk All-Stars." Comedian D.L. Hughley will lead a team of on-location correspondents designed to attract younger viewers.
Among the new features Leno, a notorious gearhead, is considering is something called a "green car challenge," where celebrities will race around a track in a souped-up electric Ford Focus. It's all fun and games until somebody misses a curve. Jerry Seinfeld is scheduled to be his first sit-down guest Monday, and while music reportedly will not be a staple of the series, Jay-Z, Rihanna and Kanye West are slated to perform together on opening night, and Eric Clapton is booked to duet with Bruce Hornsby Sept. 17.
However, as Jay-Z might sing, it's been a "Hard Knock Life" for The Jay Leno Show even before its debut. NBC affiliates are understandably skittish. WHDH-TV, the NBC station in Boston — in Leno's home state, for goodness sake — said it would rather produce its own 10 o'clock local newscast than run its native son in prime time. After NBC threatened to strip the station of its network affiliation, WHDH reversed its position. Further, according to published reports, competing networks will be going out of their way to prohibit their top stars from appearing with Leno, not wishing to give any aid to their prime-time enemy.
It is virtually impossible not to like Jay Leno. I've spent time with him on several occasions, and one would be hard-pressed to find a more gracious and genuine person, especially in the plastic shark tank that is Hollywood. His every success has been won the old-fashioned way, the Detroit way, through tireless hard work and determination. He's been running four miles a day and lost nearly 15 pounds over the summer. He's ready for his greatest challenge. But is America ready to like him at 10 o'clock?Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]