Page K – NBC’s gamble 2: Jay Leno’s disheveled debut 9/15/2009

Jay Leno: No rest for the weary.

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Sept. 15, 2009 — No one’s rooting more than me for Jay Leno to stick it to everyone who believes he’ll fail at 10 p.m. weeknights on NBC, but the debut of “The Jay Leno Show” last night (Sept. 14) was a mess.

Even his opening monologue, which you would think Leno would ace easily after delivering one every evening for 17 years on “The Tonight Show,” came across as labored.  He over-delivered it, in the manner of an overly eager rookie suffering from opening-night jitters.

After that came a lineup of segments whose order seemed to have been decided with all the sophistication and forethought of a coin-flip or eeny meeny miney moe.

There was the musical car wash bit with comic Dan Finnerty that went on way too long; a stiff conversation with Jerry Seinfeld, who was literally rigid as he sat in a starched tuxedo in a chair alongside Leno; a brief, timely interview with a sullen, contrite Kanye West, an interview that might have been more newsworthy and insightful if someone had bothered to prepare Leno to ask West if he had been drinking heavily before disrupting the Video Music Awards Sunday night; a dark, angry performance by West, Jay Z and Rihanna in the show’s second half-hour that surely was a showstopper, though not in a good way; and a final “Headlines” segment to close the hour that seemed as if it had been tacked on to fill time.

Leno’s “Headlines” bit lives or dies based on the quality of the material his staff assembles from clippings contributed by viewers.  Last night’s segment indicated that there had perhaps been a lull in viewer mail during Leno’s three months off the air.

Much better were two other holdovers from Leno’s “Tonight Show” — a bit in which Leno poses as an interviewer, this time manipulating President Obama’s answers from his interview Sunday on “60 Minutes” to hilarious effect; and another in which Leno and bandleader Kevin Eubanks are gay lovers.   Folded into Leno’s monologue, this one had Leno going on the reality series “Cheaters” to find Eubanks cheating on him with a Leno lookalike.  It yielded the evening’s funniest moment, a line so brief that it was possible to miss it, when Leno accused Eubanks of taking his new man to a gay club called “The Sphincter.”

By the end of the show, you could almost sense Leno’s exasperation, if not exhaustion.  His hair, so carefully combed at the top of the hour, seemed to become more disheveled as the hour wore on.  Near the show’s end, one unfortunate camera shot actually caught Leno slumping in his chair, as if winded after a footrace.

Oh, well.  What can you say?  Jay’s always been more of a tortoise than a hare anyway.  And for now, at least, NBC says it’s ready to give its tortoise all the time he needs.  From the look of last night’s opening night, he’s going to need it.

Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com

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