Monday, September 28, 2009

Beating up on Jay Leno

By Steve Crum

So Jay Leno’s new prime time show is being criticized for being a clone of his old Tonight Show. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t.

It is a case of not fixing something unless is it broken, and it is more than that. Leno’s late night gig, which he did for *can you believe it* 17 years, was essentially a dupe of what his predecessor, Johnny Carson, did for 30 years. That includes an opening monologue (like Carson, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien); humorous repartee with the band leader (Letterman and O’Brien do the same); reading funny newspaper items and bloopers; guest interviews from behind a desk (this dates back to Steve Allen); introducing stand-up comedians (done since The Tonight Show’s beginning); and comedy sketches featuring Leno (all predecessors did this too). Even Leno’s Jaywalking was done (under different title) by Steve Allen when he hosted the show. Everything old gets new again.

Steve Allen (from 1954-57 the first Tonight Show host) segued from a daily, live, late night show to a recorded, weekly, prime time hour with a near copycat comedy-variety show. He brought along his orchestra leader, Skitch Henderson. A big difference was his establishment of a comic gang of regulars that included Don Knotts, Louis Nye, and Tom Poston. They performed in what became the centerpiece of Allen’s prime time show: the comedy sketches. Music, particularly jazz, was featured, an Allen mainstay throughout his career. Minus the familiar host desk and guest chairs, his prime time show was pretty much a mirror reflection of his recently departed Tonight Show.

Ernie Kovacs, who alternated with Allen as host on The Tonight Show from 1956-57, changed some things when he went to prime time. His series and specials focused on visual comedy. Gone was the live studio audience, since the visual bits and sketches had to be prerecorded. With him as sketch comedian and occasional singer was Edie Adams, who along the way became his real life wife. Kovacs’ foray into prime time included a couple of comedy enhanced game shows.

Jack Paar’s emotional five years as Tonight Show host, 1957-62, emphasized talk, sometimes serious talk (like his infamous interview with Fidel Castro), along with the music and comedy. When Paar shifted to a weekly hour-long prime time show after leaving Tonight, he brought along his orchestra leader, Jose Melis. Familiar Tonight Show guests like Jonathan Winters, Oscar Levant and Alexander King would occasionally appear. Paar also booked personalities like Billy Graham and Richard Nixon. Outside of the studio audience being much more subdued, Paar’s new show, which again included his opening monologue, was only marginally different from his Tonight job. Oh yes, gone was the host’s desk. He had chairs placed beside each other, like Jay Leno now has.

Johnny Carson neither followed his 30 years on The Tonight Show with a prime time show nor did he even have occasional specials. There were rumors he would do the latter, but it never happened.

When it was first announced Jay Leno would have an hour long, nightly prime time show, I was concerned about Leno’s health. Allen and Paar helmed a prime time 60 minutes, with Kovacs settling into a half hour slot. They all stressed over the once a week work load. Sure they had successfully survived the daily grind of late night, but a prime time slot meant stiffer competition and ratings pressure. Steve Allen eventually lost his show to both Ed Sullivan and Maverick.

Leno is tackling prime time for an hour every single week day. Guests have to be higher profile and bigger budget, and the comedy and music have to be A-1 to compete against the ratings rich drama and reality shows CBS, ABC, Fox and the vast cable wasteland offer. Leno is depending on tried and true comedy like Jaywalking, but yet he is experimenting with newer bits like 10 at 10, and the green car racetrack. His opening crowd high fives, the comedy monologue, and his banter with band leader Kevin Eubanks are comfortable Tonight Show deja vu.

As Jay Leno bounces familiar jokes against his new set’s acoustics, think survival. If he makes it through this TV season in ratings splendor, and I hope he does, Leno just might accomplish what his Tonight Show predecessors failed to do. Undoubtedly this involves sacrificing the few remaining black hairs amongst the silver on his head.

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