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Jay Leno substitutes retired Johnny Carson

Jay Leno substitutes retired Johnny Carson — Ken Tucker talks about the new host of ”The Tonight Show”

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Until recently, Johnny Carson was a pop-culture irrelevancy — that silver fox with all the wives who still thinks Don Rickles is a stitch. Talk show news has long focused on challengers to The Tonight Show. Joan Rivers and Pat Sajak came and went; Arsenio Hall became an out-of-nowhere hit; ABC has only recently decided to spare us the continuing torture of Into the Dumper With Rick Dees.

Now, however, The Tonight Show has returned to the center of a troubled nation’s consciousness. In the year’s shrewdest, most paradoxical media move, Carson has reminded everyone of his former greatness and made The Tonight Show must viewing again simply by announcing his retirement date. Johnny will cease shooting his cuffs and feigning shock at Doc Severinsen’s taste in clothes after May 22, 1992. Announcer Ed McMahon and bandleader Severinsen will be pushing through the exit door at the same time. Jay Leno has been appointed Carson’s successor even as, if you believe everything you read, David Letterman seethes with jealousy and rage. (If the talk show wars were a comic book, Leno would be fitting Batman’s mask around his heroic lantern jaw while, in a Gotham City back alley, Dave applied white pancake makeup and cackled with insane, homicidal glee as the Joker.)

Suddenly, NBC is the place to be weeknights at 11:30. These days, Carson looks radiant with relief; right after NBC announced his sign-off date, Carson’s jokes took on a what-the-hey, I’m-outta-here irreverence. Studio audiences have taken to rising to their feet and applauding at length when Carson emerges for his monologue. To his credit, Carson isn’t buying into this premature sentimentality; one night, when a thin joke was met with groans, he said with masterful snideness, ”What? Do you want to take your standing ovation back?”

But as Johnny loosens up, Jay stiffens. Leno used to shamble through the Tonight Show curtain like Yogi Bear in a monkey suit; nowadays his posture is nearly as rigid as Johnny’s on a cranky night. The media myth is that Leno’s transition from marathon nightclub comic to Tonight host has been a smooth one. Not so: In adjusting his natural charm and sharp-wittedness to the show’s formula, Leno has lost a lot of his originality.

To be blunt, he has become something of a wuss — a Tonight Show toady: All those declarations about the sacred trust of Tonight Show leadership and his servile pledge to work more days than Johnny — it’s a tad humiliating for him. Then, too, like Arsenio, Leno has an interviewing technique that’s a combination of awkward and fawning (fawkward?). Unlike Hall, Leno is wise enough to be embarrassed about this yet looks as if he can’t help it — that silly, uncomfortable grin rarely leaves Leno’s mug when he’s asking a guest about a new movie, book, or cable special.

Even worse, Leno’s monologues have already settled into Carson’s time- honored style of deadly evenhandedness. When he was a carefree stand-up, Leno used to display populist instincts that forced his adoring audience to challenge their concepts of government policy and sexism. These days, he’s always careful to knock Ted Kennedy every time he zaps Dan Quayle, lest the National Balance of Humor be thrown out of whack.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that now that he’s boss Leno will reclaim his old spirit, unwind a bit, and take charge. But the two post- monologue bits Leno has begun doing don’t bode well. One is called ”The $25 Trapezoid”: Leno chooses an audience member, reads a card listing a trio of disparate items (”Churches, hospitals, and Redd Foxx” was a recent example), and asks his luckless stooge to figure out what the three things have in common. It’s impossible to guess, because the answer is just a punch line: ”Name three things that don’t pay taxes.” Recognize it? ”The $25 Trapezoid” is just Jay’s version of Johnny’s old Carnac routine.

On Fridays, Leno pulls out his other mirth-maker. He asks audience members multiple-choice questions about Tonight Shows from earlier in the week: ”Edie McClurg said she’s going to Montana to make a movie with (a) Sparky the Wonder Horse, (b) Madonna, or (c) Robert Redford.” As an ongoing source of comedy, this is an idea worthy of Rick Dees. (Do you care about the answer? It was Redford.)

As for the great Who Will Replace Ed Sidekick Dilemma, I’ll throw in my two cents. Leno would be wise to employ one of the many young comics he has helped on the comedy-club circuit. While waiting to interview Leno a few years ago, I stood around in a Philadelphia hotel room littered with McDonald’s bags, watching the avuncular comic offer graduate-course tips on timing to up-and-comer Wayne Cotter. Cotter, a twinkly-eyed wise guy who currently is host of Fox’s Comic Strip Live, might make an ideal foil for Leno.

Leno has said he’s considering bigger names than Cotter’s — Saturday Night Live‘s Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, and Jan Hooks have all been mentioned, despite the fact that Hooks recently signed on with Designing Women. (Hey, she’s talented and all, but how did Jan Hooks get to be the hottest performer in show business?)

Before making a permanent choice, though, Leno should at least employ Hartman for the first few nights to do his ferocious, ineffable Ed routine (”You are correct, sir!”). That would clear the ghosts and stale air from the Tonight Show studio. And at the rate he’s going, Leno will soon need an exorcist and a fumigator. If that sounds harsh, well, I suspect these are also the sentiments of lots of Leno admirers who feel betrayed by his all-too-willing descent into mediocrity. Come on, Jay — start leading with your jaw again.