Last night Jay Leno made his return to The Tonight Show. From NBC's behaviour when they decided to bring Leno back to the show, even from the promos they aired during the Olympics, it seems obvious that they not only hoped Leno's return to The Tonight Show would be a triumphant one, they honestly believed it. Now that Jay Leno's return has aired, however, it must seem obvious to most, perhaps everyone but NBC and Leno's most loyal fans, that it was anything but triumphant. Indeed, if last night's show was any indication, it seems apparent that Leno may not stay on The Tonight Show long.
The plain truth is that critics' reactions to Jay Leno's first episode back on The Tonight Show were underwhelming to say the least. The consensus of most critics was that Jay Leno simply trotted out the same old material for his return engagement on television's oldest late night show. Frazier Moore of the Associated Press summed it up as "the same old Jay with pretty much the same old Tonight Show." Raju Mudhar of The Toronto Star noted, "...what was remarkable with these guests was how unremarkable Leno was. It really was as if he had never left." James Poniewozik of Time noted that the monologue "...could largely have been a Leno monologue from before The Jay Leno Show, right down to a set of jokes about the previous Presidential administration." Some critics were even more vicious with regards to Leno's performance. In USA Today Robert Bianco (not a critic I often agree with) referred to Leno's monologue as "tired, lame, and unfunny."
Now I must confess I did not watch Jay Leno's return to The Tonight Show out of protest over their treatment of Conan O'Brien, but it is hard to ignore the reviews it received, the vast majority of which are negative. I might be inclined to ignore Robert Bianco's review (as I said, I don't often agree with him), but when every single critic I've read also sum up Leno's return to The Tonight Show as tired and stale, I have to believe it probably was. And to be honest, it does not surprise me. Jay Leno's prime time show was nearly the same as his version of The Tonight Show. And his version of The Tonight Show has changed very little in the past sixteen years. Jokes which are moderately funny at best. Repartee with his bandleader. Lame routines (Jaywalking, anyone?). In the history of late night hosts, Jay Leno ranks among the least original and the least cutting edge. Although he is not necessarily a bad host, he is the very definition of a mediocre host.
Of course, regardless of the reviews, Leno did beat Letterman in the ratings. Early ratings estimate that 6.6 million people tuned into see Leno return to The Tonight Show. While this might seem like a victory, I rather suspect it should not be considered such. It is lower than the 9.2 million who watched Conan O'Brien's debut on The Tonight Show last year. It is much lower than the 17.7 million viewers who tuned in to the first outing of The Jay Leno Show, a show whose ratings dropped dramatically over the following weeks. While I have no doubt that loyal Jay Leno fans tuned into the show last night, I rather suspect many tuned in out of curiosity. I also believe that the ratings will drop drastically in the coming weeks. By April Letterman might not only be beating Leno, he may well be trouncing him. Quite simply, NBC may have a ratings catastrophe on their hands.
Indeed, the makings for a ratings catastrophe have been there ever since NBC decided to return Leno to late night. It's not simply the case of Leno trotting out the same old jokes and same old routines. Comedians have made it on stale material before. It is the fact that whole late night war from the beginning of the year substantially changed Leno's image. Previously he was well liked. People thought he was a nice guy. Now many think of him as an absolute jerk. Some even share Howard Stern's sentiment expressed on CBS' The Early Show, "Just the mere mention of Jay Leno's name makes me want to vomit." Given the level of animosity that still exists towards Leno and the fact that neither Leno nor NBC have made an effort to make amends with the viewing public, it seems likely that viewers might start staying away from Leno in droves. In the end, his return to The Tonight Show may be shorter than Conan's stint on the show. When that happens, maybe at long last NBC will realise how grave their mistake was in betting on the wrong horse.