Hello again to Jay Leno, back as ‘Tonight’ host
NEW YORK (AP) – A lot of things in the world have changed since May. But not Jay Leno hosting “The Tonight Show.”
Oh, sure, there was that awkward nine-month lapse between his farewell then and his return on Monday, a stretch when Leno left, flopped in prime time, then accepted the assignment from NBC to push out his flagging “Tonight Show” successor, Conan O’Brien.
NBC and Leno’s fans can relax: Judging from his first night back, it’s the same old Jay with pretty much his same old “Tonight Show.”
He started the show by spoofing the conclusion of “The Wizard of Oz,” where Dorothy awakens to find all those crazy goings-on were only a dream.
Jay, seen in sepia tones in what was meant to be a Kansas farmhouse, said, “I went away to the strangest place! It was wonderful, but some of it wasn’t so nice.”
In fact, Leno had gone away from the nation’s TV screens for less than a month when he returned Monday to his old haunt in late night.
“It’s good to be home,” he told his audience as he began his first “Tonight Show” monologue since last spring. “I’m Jay Leno, your host. At least, for a while.”
Leno was reclaiming his old job at NBC’s “Tonight Show” just nine months after giving it up to O’Brien, and only 19 days after NBC pulled the plug on Leno’s prime-time misadventure.
“We were off for the last couple of weeks,” Leno cracked during his monologue. “Kind of like the Russians at the Olympics. What happened to them?”
Leno noted that one of his guests was an American gold medalist, skier Lindsey Vonn.
“Did you see her?” Leno marveled. “When it comes to going downhill, nobody is faster. OK, except NBC.”
As he zinged his own network, along with former vice president Dick Cheney, Toyota and Tiger Woods, Leno signaled the resumption of the late-night war between him and his longtime CBS rival David Letterman, who had gained the ratings upper hand during O’Brien’s brief, unhappy claim on “The Tonight Show.”
Leno’s other welcome-back guests included Jamie Foxx and singer-songwriter Brad Paisley.
And in a pre-taped piece, Leno knocked on front doors asking unwitting residents if he could come in and try their desks (he had notably eschewed any desk for “The Jay Leno Show”). Then, back in the studio, he unveiled his own stylish new desk.
NBC is praying that Leno will comfortably settle in behind that new desk on the not-particularly-new “Tonight Show,” where he ruled late night (and beat Letterman) for much of 17 years.
But already handicappers were weighing whether Leno can regain his momentum.
So were some viewers.
Dorothy Elayan, 50, of Louisville, Ky., and her daughter, Jena, 19, who were visiting Southern California, were waiting to enter the NBC studio in Burbank for Monday’s taping. Both said they preferred Leno over O’Brien.
“I didn’t like Conan. I didn’t like his sense of humor,” Jena Elayan said.
Her mother said she had remained a fan of Leno in prime time.
“I would like him earlier because I go to bed earlier. I was that one little person still watching,” she said, referring to his disappointing prime-time ratings.
Also in line was Natalie Hanks, 19, of San Clemente, Calif., who said she found O’Brien funnier than Leno but added, “I wish there was room for both.”
She said Leno might face resistance from O’Brien’s fans.
“I’ve seen a lot of people on Facebook rallying around Conan. I think younger people” will boycott “Tonight” with Leno, Hanks said.
Meanwhile, theories have abounded concerning the next step for O’Brien, currently the odd man out, who is widely seen as having been victimized by Leno and by NBC’s ham-handed shake up that led to his departure. The most popular scenario places him on the Fox network, butting heads nightly with Letterman and Leno.
Now with NBC’s much-watched blanket coverage of the Winter Olympics just a memory, the stumbling, oft-ridiculed network desperately needs something new to brag about. A successful trip back to the future with Leno hosting “Tonight” might qualify – and could actually happen.