Jay Leno struggles through interview with Kanye West
The uninspired premiere episode of The Jay Leno Show does not bode well for either the comic or the beleaguered fourth-ranked TV network. Look out below.

Last night’s premiere of The Jay Leno Show, the former Tonight Show host’s primetime consolation prize from NBC for ousting him from his highly successful late-night perch, did very well in the ratings. According to the Nielsen ratings service, the show drew 17.7 million viewers, more than triple his average audience for the Tonight Show.

Of course the great majority of last night’s audience won’t be returning night after night, and that is a big worry for NBC, which is placing its fortunes on a very risky move. Running the show every week-night in the 10 p.m. slot risks destroying the affiliates’ nighttime newscasts if Leno’s ratings are not strong night after night.

Last night’s premiere episode provided little reason to expect a large regular audience for the show. The new set is reminiscent of those used in old variety shows from the Milton Berle Show to the Carol Burnett Show–and thus rather refreshing in that regard.

Having Leno and a guest sit in comfortable-looking chairs facing each other at an angle is quite appealing, giving the interviews a less strained look.

Unfortunately, the interviews–usually a strength for Leno–were rather weak. His first-half interview with Jerry Seinfield was uninspired and not particularly diverting. It showcased Leno’s laudable willingness to take a back seat and let others shine, but the discussion of the Seinfield show’s forthcoming cast reunion on HBO’s Larry David Show was old news, and Seinfeld’s gag of interviewing Oprah Winfrey while both ignored Jay was a clever idea that didn’t go anywhere.

If it weren’t the show’s first night, I imagine a good many viewers would have switched channels at that point.

Whereas the Seinfeld interview was weak, the talk with singer-rapper Kanye West was truly awful. West sat for the interview in an attempt to defuse some of the anger against him that had occurred during the past couple of days as a result of his bizarre, astonishingly rude, and offensive commandeering of a microphone from seventeen-year-old songstress Taylor Swift during an awards ceremony to tell the studio and TV audiences that someone else deserved the award, not she. Rather understandably, West was clearly uncomfortable during the interview and was largely unresponsive to Leno’s questions.

Clearly desperate for some sort of interesting response, Leno even asked West what the rapper’s late mother would have said about his boorish award-show misdeed–and had to provide the answer himself when West muttered a nonanswer. It was a truly bizarre moment, but neither entertaining nor enlightening.

This floundering interview was followed by an even worse musical performance by West, Jay-Z, and Rihanna. Their song was just wretched, and one cannot help but wonder why the producers chose such an aesthetically weak offering as the show’s first musical number. Did Taylor Swift refuse to appear?

A worse sign for the future was the amount of vulgar humor thrown about. For some reason, jokes about sexual sadism abounded, and an extended sequence of phallic humor was not funny but was spectacularly stupid. Confounding common sense, Leno and his team made the new show seem dirtier than the Tonight Show. Audiences will surely take note of this.

On the positive side, the humorous-headlines bit at end was as solid as usual (it was a popular element during Leno’s tenure on the Tonight Show)–though it might not be overly churlish of me to note that it’s the one segment the show’s viewers help write.

And there was a quite amusing fake interview with President Obama in the style of those beer commercials in which fans ask National Football League coaches questions in news conferences and the coaches’ real-life answers are edited in with humorous results. In this instance the answers were from Obama’s previous-day 60 Minutes interview, and Leno’s questions were cleverly written to make Obama’s responses quite funny.

The piece was innocent of political content, however, suggesting that Leno does not wish to satirize the president very much, as is the case with most other TV comedy hosts. But it’s also emblematic of the oddly routine nature of the entire program and a serious failure to connect with the public, who are, after all, regularly marching in the streets in protest against the policies of Obama and the congressional Democrats.

Overall, one might have expected a good deal more inspiration from a comedy team who had three months to fashion the best premiere episode they could create. Of course the real test will be what they can come up with five nights a week, forty-six weeks per year.

But if this is the best they can do on night one, it’s difficult to imagine that this is going to be must-see TV.

Or even bearable.

–S. T. Karnick