By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, March 19, 2010 — As the unappointed representative of millions of Jay Leno fans, I have to ask NBC: What have you done with our Jay?
Hey, I know no one elected me spokesman for the entire Leno nation, but I’m certain I’m not the only die-hard Leno fan who’s been watching him since his (rightful) return to “The Tonight Show” and wondering if somewhere between losing “The Tonight Show” the first time and then flopping earlier this season at 10 p.m., Jay and his writers have forgotten how to write a funny monologue.
And they’d better relearn how to write one — fast. Ever since Jay returned to “Tonight” on March 1, I’ve detected that something was off, but I did not pinpoint the problem until this week. And lo and behold: It’s the monologue, for 17 years the most important and easily the most popular portion of Leno’s “Tonight Show.”
The Leno monologue must be seen as the principal driver of Leno’s dominance of late-night TV at least from 1995 (when he first passed Letterman) to 2009, when Conan O’Brien replaced him. Here was this mainstream comedian, one of the best-liked personalities on television, whose sole talent lies in the swift delivery of jokes, one after another, with set-ups and hilarious punchlines. To take advantage of this talent, the Leno monologue became the longest in late-night — 10, 12 or 15 minutes long — and the monologue’s effectiveness would determine whether viewers would stick around for subsequent segments or drift elsewhere.
Well, lately, I find myself drifting elsewhere as Jay offers this weakened version of a monologue that was formerly one of the most dependable things you could look forward to watching on TV night after night after night.
You can tell Leno’s monologue has weakened by listening to the reaction of his studio audience. Lately, laughter is more often than not supplanted by applause, the reaction by which comedy audiences register their recognition of the situation a comedian has set up or observed. Such applause — known to comedians as “mercy applause” — shows the audience politely “appreciates” the attempt at humor and even likes the comedian personally — in this case, Jay — though they don’t find his observations particularly clever, illuminating, surprising or funny.
With a weaker monologue, Leno’s new show is a weaker “Tonight Show” than it was in the era before the insertion of Conan O’Brien interrupted Leno’s flow. This situation likely explains why Leno has not yet won back the ratings he once enjoyed at 11:35 p.m. In addition, the studio in which Leno is performing — the one left over from the failed 10 p.m. experiment — lacks the intimacy of his former surroundings on “Tonight.” This studio was always too big, the stage and audience bleachers so wide that Leno seems a mile away from portions of his audience (and also from his band and Kevin Eubanks, Leno’s nominal sidekick who is now situated so far away that he hardly seems part of the show). In fact, a similar studio and set arrangement was a problem for Jay in the first years after he took over “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson. When NBC designed a more intimate scenario for him, he blossomed.
Job one for Leno and NBC in these first weeks back on “Tonight”: Fix this monologue situation soon or “The Tonight Show” will be permanently damaged.
Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com