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Grand Theft Talk Show

October 14, 2009

On September 14, NBC premiered its uber-brainchild, a late night talk show beginning in prime time, with The Jay Leno Show. It opened to reasonably high ratings, thanks to a marvelous faux pas by Kanye West on the previous evening. But the novelty quickly wore off. Last week, in fact, the show continued its downward spiral, failing to score higher than 60 in the Nielsen Ratings on any night. By traditional standards, it’s not performing well.

But NBC continues to stand by its favorite son, claiming the ratings can only really be evaluated over the long haul as a steady earner. In fact, NBC has decided not only to continue to play the brave face toward the press’ raised eyebrows, it’s gone so far as to allow the Silver Fox to have carte blanche on lifting anything he’s seen on talk shows in the past — including the cannibalizing of Leno’s own late night NBC peers. The result has become a not-so-thinly veiled hodgepodge of successful gimmicks from other programs. But let’s not wax without proof — let’s take a look together at the facets of The Jay Leno Show that worked better on the shows he stole them from.

Cutting to video in the monologue. Though this isn’t a patented trademark of any late night host currently, Conan O’Brien has always used monologue cut-aways, even more than ever since he took over the Tonight Show post, and the device has been both working well and increasing in frequency. While Jay has been known to occasionally cut to a video joke in the monologue (very rarely, as his quips err on the one-liner side), his frequency of doing so in the past week and a half is at about a three-per-night clip. 

Having the guest do something uncharacteristic and “fun.” As Jimmy Fallon continues to increase a solid footing in his new Late Night gig — and is succeeding in making his own distinctive mark — by goofing around loosely with his guests, someone in NBC’s head office decided that the same shtick would be great for Jay. But when Fallon challenged and played Betty White in beer pong, it was funny, unexpected and endearing. When Jay dressed as a deer and tried to get Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin to shoot him with a paintball gun as he crawled on all fours, even she seemed confused and a little creeped out.

Asking silly questions in a shotgun-style format. Hey! Remember the early days of The Daily Show, when Craig Kilborn/Jon Stewart would ask their celebrity guests to answer five odd questions to garner surprising answers? That gag’s back! Only now…there are ten questions! That’s, like, five more! This is so strangely similar to The Daily Show’s past gimmick, it’s kind of a wonder that no one in the brainstorming room tossed out a “didn’t someone already do that?” Or maybe someone did.

A rotating team of nightly “guest correspondents.” Again, see: The Daily Show. Since The Daily Show Began.

Having guests ride around in a car. It’s a good thing that patriotic America doesn’t watch British television, or they’d realize right away that this entire piece is oddly reminiscent of Top Gear’s “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment, which asked celebrities questions as they tooled around a racetrack. It’s worth adding that Leno himself even appeared on Top Gear, in this very segment. 

Look, I don’t want to be too hard on Jay Leno. I know he’s not my cup of tea, and he does have his fans. But my issue is not with whether The Jay Leno Show is funny or not — it’s an issue of Leno’s collection of solid bits from other shows to “breathe new life” into his ten o’clock show. That’s just dirty pool, folks.

As The Jay Leno Show continues to truck along, it’s going to be a while before we can unequivocally call the prime time talk show a success. Until then, continue to tune in. The great thing about Leno’s show is that it cuts down on all that pesky “having to watch five shows you like” by consolidating them all into one.

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