Truth be told, I’m glad The Jay Leno Show crashed and burned. Does that sound mean? It’s not intended that way. I have nothing against Mr. Leno personally; I met him when he was captain of the Tonight Show ship — a post he will soon resume — and liked the hell out of the guy. He may be one of those human rarities, a person it’s impossible not to like when you’re one-on-one with him. The best part of his prime-time show was always the opening, when he strolled downstage and began slapping high fives with obviously delighted members of the audience. The guy has charm.
And honesty. When I was on Tonight, he came to my dressing room (just a box, but it had my name on the door, by God), introduced himself (as if I didn’t know — that hair), and told me how glad he was that I’d come. He then said he knew I’d written some uncomplimentary things about the late-night format in general and The Tonight Show in particular. He raised the subject because he thought I might worry about getting ambushed with an embarrassing question or becoming the butt of a joke. ”Nothing like that,” he said. ”We’re here to have fun.”
I doubt if Mr. Leno was having much of that as his five-nights-a-week show lurched toward cancellation. Is he rich? Sure. Is money enough of an air bag to cushion your self-esteem when you suddenly crash into an indifferent viewing world? Nope. When your greatest fulfillment in life is entertaining people, failing to do so is hurtful and dispiriting. You’re listening to the voice of experience; when Kingdom Hospital flamed out on ABC in 2004, I felt that I’d screwed up a great opportunity. I moped for months. And beneath the big ol’ hello-world smile, I imagine Mr. Leno feels the same.
That doesn’t change the fact that when I read NBC was giving Leno five hours of prime time a week, my heart sank. My first reaction was, I thought reality TV was the worst — now this.
Leno is a nice guy, but his prime-time showcase was flavorless pabulum consisting of Vegas-style stand-up (jokes about politics rather than sex, as a rule, but told in the same tired ”Take my wife, please” fashion), skits, stupid human tricks (my favorite was the phys-ed teacher who lifted weights while standing on an exercise ball), and celebs who were on board to sell their latest projects. In short, there was nothing there to disturb the human brain in the slightest.
At 11:30, when most of America has gone beddy-bye, this kind of semi-comatose entertainment is fine (and viewers searching for something at least marginally more acerbic can always switch to Letterman), but in prime time? Oh God, please no. My delight at the Leno Show‘s failure sprang from a bone-deep conviction that it would not fail, that it would in fact turn into a ratings monster and spawn what network TV does best: imitations. And, nice man though he is, you could add together the entertainment value of every single episode of Mr. Leno’s prime-time venture and it would still come up short next to a single episode of The Good Wife.
I don’t like reality TV because there’s nothing real about it — if you think those people on Survivor aren’t playing to the cameras, you probably still believe in the tooth fairy. I don’t like Tonight Show-style shows, meanwhile, because they are without texture and have little point beyond thinly disguised huckstering. I’m a story guy, which means I’m a scripted-TV guy. Last fall, NBC turned over 5 of its 22 hours of prime-time programming to a show with — fittingly — a test pattern on the stage. If it had worked and even one other network had followed suit, that would have amounted to almost 11 percent of total network weekly prime time.
Will NBC eventually fill the 10–11 p.m. weeknight hour with dazzling dramas of Friday Night Lights quality? In your dreams. Get ready for more reality (I still don’t understand why someone hasn’t pitched America’s Greatest Door-to-Door Salesman), an expansion of the Law & Order franchise, and, of course, reruns. But there might be one show in there worth watching. Even one would make a start at repairing NBC’s tattered rep. Best of all? Rival networks only imitate success. That’s rarely good news, but this time I think it is.
We dodged a bullet.