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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Jay Leno Show' stays on familiar ground

Seinfeld and Oprah are a breath of fresh air for the comedian's new show, which feels like anything but.

September 15, 2009|Mary McNamara | TELEVISION CRITIC

It's not a good sign when the Bud Light commercial is funnier than the comedy show it interrupts.

Sixteen minutes into the new "The Jay Leno Show," it was difficult not to panic. This is the future of television? This wasn't even a good rendition of television past.

Clearly Leno believes that if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and he has been very vocal about the fact that his late-night talk show was not broke. So here it is again, different time slot, busier set and same old jokes. Literally.

Yes, there was a reference to an Obama-held "root beer summit" between Kanye West and Taylor Swift, but there was also a Bush joke, a Cheney joke, a Wal-Mart joke, a Cash for Clunkers joke (getting warmer) and a Joe Biden/Nancy Pelosi joke so dated that Leno had to precede it with "people are still talking about. . . ." All of which made his opening monologue seem like an attempt to cash in on the current vampire fixation -- comedy of the undead.

Cut to a flatly bizarre musical car wash skit -- in which Dan Finnerty tortured some pleasant-looking woman named Meg with his silly and sexually suggestive songs -- and by the time a tuxedoed Jerry Seinfeld (Really, Jerry? Was it a tuxedo event?) appeared through the set's May Co.-esque doors, it was hard not to hope he would simply release the audience with the promise that they would not have to serve for another 12 months.

"I'm just trying to grasp what's going on here," Seinfeld said instead, just as if he could read our minds. "In the '90s, when we quit a show, we actually left."

Who thought we'd feel such nostalgia for the '90s?

For a moment, Seinfeld seemed a breath of fresh air, expressing concern that he was the biggest name Leno could get: "Is your staff aware that I have not been on television for 11 years?" and quipping that he was there to announce his new talk show. Then the star power of Oprah Winfrey appeared like a living fresco via teleprompter and it all went downhill again.

A mock "interview" with President Obama containing an actual Viagra joke ('90s alert!) was followed by a supremely uncomfortable "unplanned" chat with West in which the rap star apologized for "stepping on the emotions" of Taylor Swift, whose acceptance speech he had trampled over at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night.

Attempting, perhaps, to recapture his ratings-rocket Hugh Grant moment, Leno assumed the role of disappointed uncle, gravely asking West what he thought his mother would have to say in light of his actions. After several beats of silence, West said he was going to take some time and "analyze how I'm going to make it through the rest of this life."

Then he got up and rocked the house with Rihanna and Jay-Z. Which, given the smashed-flat-in-the-middle-of-the-road nature of all that had gone before, seemed just plain weird. Rihanna and her orange thigh-highs can work many forms of magic, but save this show? Probably not.

Then it was back to those wacky headlines with school lunch, cabbage boob and Chinese restaurant jokes galore. Because this is Jay and that's what he does. The only thing he does, apparently.

To be fair, it's difficult to imagine a show under more squint-eyed scrutiny than this one. In recent weeks, Leno has been on the cover of as many magazines as Ted Kennedy, often with the same celestial backlighting, and allowed to repeat his already oft-repeated genial amazement that NBC took "The Tonight Show" away from him when he was at the top of his game.

Now, if the media is to be believed, Leno is currently the Most Powerful Man alive, the Mad Scientist of the digital age, capable of ending scripted drama with a single show. (And the week after Larry Gelbart died, which just seems wrong.)

So anything that Leno did Monday night would inevitably be combed through with the frantic intensity of "Lost Symbol" speed-readers.

Which is why this strange, shallow puddle of comedy is so difficult to accept. With all eyes on Leno, this is the best he, and his writers, and the struggling network could come up with? A "Cheaters" parody in which the joke is that he and bandleader Kevin Eubanks are having an affair? Edgy stuff for Jay, perhaps, and brave of any middle-aged man to appear on TV in argyle, but honestly, NBC. Has it come to this?

Yes, "The Jay Leno Show" promises to be better than, say, Rosie O'Donnell's mad flight into variety, but gosh darn it, at least Rosie took some chances. Leno, with the world at his feet, took none at all, unless you count some bawdy word play on the nickname for Richard, which I most emphatically don't.

The best we can hope for is that "The Jay Leno Show" will get better, much better, or at least provide good fodder for Conan.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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