Leno and Palin’s lost question: What about Dave?

Sarah Palin goes chin-to-chin with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, March 3, 2010 — Jay Leno should have asked Sarah Palin about David Letterman.

That would have made for a much more interesting interview, one that would have made more headlines this morning than Palin’s tepid appraisal of “Family Guy.”  She called the Fox cartoon series “lame” in a portion of her conversation with Leno that at any moment could have turned to a riveting discussion of her feud with Letterman.

But if you hold your breath waiting for Jay Leno to conduct an interesting or even mildly thought-provoking interview, then you will surely suffocate.

The moment at which Leno could have handed Palin an opportunity to bash Leno’s late-night rival (or at least engage in a lively conversation about the nature of late-night TV and its treatment of public figures and newsmakers) came in their first segment together (of two) on “The Tonight Show” when Leno addressed the issue of The Media and its treatment of Palin.  It’s an issue on which Palin frequently harps because she knows her fan base of Ordinary People loves it when she attacks Big institutions such as Big Media or Big Government.

“The media does sort of try to get a rise out of you,” Leno said.  “They sort of poke you to get you to react and sometimes your reaction becomes bigger than whatever the initial story was.  Have you sort of learned, maybe, OK,  I’m not gonna comment on that one because I know it will only get bigger?”

Poke you to get you to react?”  Without mentioning Letterman by name, Leno was practically asking her specifically to comment on Letterman, whose feud with Palin started with a clumsily worded monologue joke that seemed (to Palin and her husband Todd) to imply that Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez had impregnated Palin’s 14-year-old daughter.  After Palin blasted Letterman, the CBS “Late Show” host spent the better part of last June hammering her night after night and ratings soared.

“What I would desire is more opportunity to follow up on a comment that perhaps I’ve made,” said Palin, answering Leno’s question.

Then came an even better opportunity for Palin to get into the Letterman dustup.  In fact, Leno’s next question was worded in such a way that you might have thought Leno was actually leading her into a discussion about Letterman, though he evidently didn’t have the nerve to just raise the subject directly.

“Give me an example,” Leno said.  “What’s one where you sort of made a comment and you didn’t get a chance to . . . ?”

“Oh, gosh!  There are so many!” said Palin, who then raised the subject of “Family Guy,” which last month tastelessly poked fun at her son who has Down syndrome and she reacted predictably by condemning the show.  Letterman’s name never came up — a blown opportunity.

Meanwhile, the new/old Leno “Tonight Show” struggled in Night 2 to reestablish its footing.  It’s an interesting thing about Leno — here’s this guy who is (or should be) as comfortable in front of an audience as anyone in the history of show business.  And yet, he can still seem nervous and apprehensive.

He seemed that way Monday night when he delivered his monologue.  The jokes were particularly mediocre (as they have been for a while) and his studio audience reacted more with applause than laughter — a phenomenon, sometimes called “mercy applause,” that’s a sure sign the jokes aren’t funny.

And when the jokes aren’t funny, and Leno knows this, he tends to over-compensate by delivering them more loudly — kind of in the manner of a tourist abroad who cannot speak the local language and believes waiters or shopkeepers will better understand his English if he simply raises his voice.

And on Tuesday night, Leno even faltered in the “Headlines” segment, a bit he’s done thousands of times.  He seemed to rush through it as if he couldn’t have been less interested.

Leno’s new “Tonight Show” seems to have come to the air with minimal preparation other than the creation of a new logo.  NBC had six weeks to design and build Leno a new set or pre-produce a series of very funny, creative, bang-up comedy bits to be featured in the first few weeks of Leno’s return.  But other than the “Wizard of Oz” dream spoof that opened Monday’s show, little seems to have been done, maybe because NBC and its management were so focused on the Olympics that they could not devote any time to this “Tonight Show” business.

Now that the Olympics are over, they had better refocus their attention on Leno.  Right now, the most creative comedy in late-night is being done everywhere else — on “Fallon,” on “Kimmel,” on “Ferguson.”

I wasn’t even a particular fan of Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.”  But the other night, while watching Jay, I thought to myself: I wonder what Conan’s doing tonight?

Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com

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