Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Jay Leno Show(down)

Over the past few years, I have become a huge Jay Leno fan. I have a thing for corny jokes; I love his everyman shtick, the way he has a little bit of everything. He always keeps up with what’s going on, and you know he’s a guy who reads the papers. He’s always accused of being Middle American, middle-of-the-road, old fashioned, even. So what. Technically, I’m not supposed to like him, since I’m young, hip (said ironically), and from the coast. I should like David Letterman, if I wasn’t off doing something way cooler. But I have no use for Dave. He doesn’t make sense to me; he’s not funny in the least.

To counteract Leno’s Time cover (written by their wonderful arts/culture reporter, James Poniewozik), New York magazine did their cover on Letterman, as if to stick their tongue out and go, “So what Leno’s getting all this publicity. Letterman’s SO obviously better. And we would know, cause we’re New Yorkers and we have taste, not like you schlubs. You’re the guys who’re making the CSIs and Desperate Housewives big hits!” Well, suck it. I’ve sheepishly admitted my love for Leno before, apologetic, but he does have the ratings to prove his popularity. And it’s deserved—his work ethic is as legendary as his car collection.

NBC has been running more promotions for his show than the rest of their fall season combined, ensuring that everyone will watch him at first and then hopefully catch on that NBC has other shows (starting soon!) that air before him. Ratings will be big, doubtlessly helped by Kanye’s scene at the VMAs Sunday. It was nearly universally derided as a douchbaggy thing to do, and this somehow has escalated into something major, so now cultural critics are trying to ascertain why there is so much outrage at what is nothing more than a rude, insensitive act. Mike Hale of the Times does the best job:

The extended reaction to Mr. West’s deed certainly had something to do with a continuing national conversation about rudeness, whether to presidents, line judges or irritatingly successful country singers. But it was really just the latest manifestation of our addiction to artificial drama, which has grown stronger as the stuff has become more plentiful and cheap, and the shamelessness with which the media now picks at the scabs of any sort of conflict in order to boost ratings.
Of course, the first episode is nothing but the first episode—and while NBC has committed to airing Jay at 10 for two years, it remains to be seen how well he will fare, if indeed people get tired of him. Expectations are both low and high, in that Leno is supposed to save television yet it doesn’t matter how low his ratings actually are, an interesting conundrum to be in.

So how was the first show? Pretty good. It’s Jay, and really, it didn’t change. They're the typical Jay jokes, lighthearted, corny, a little political, a little not, filled with dumb people and contradictions, GE and NBC getting the raw end, like they always do. Two of his jokes, though, were stolen, a blight on this hardworking, fastidious comic: Kanye and Taylor Swift having a “root beer” with the president was suggested earlier in an article that popped in Google News, and Dick Cheney’s alma mater The University of Wyoming is naming their international studies center after him, of course crying out for a joke—one made last week by Conan O’Brien. Whoops.

I loved the set, the opening credits, the montage. The credits were fresh, but reassuring, not dull like most talk show openers, and this one offered interesting possibilities upon rewatching. I am even more enamored of NBC’s ads for the new season: crisp, clean, modern, understated, and simple, showcasing the quality and implicit the pedigree of the network.

Jay opens with his monologue; there’s a long, taped skit that may or may not be funny, depending on your tastes and how tired you are at the moment, and then comes Jerry. Funny jokes, the biggest surprise is that Jerry’s in a tux.

There was speculation Sunday evening and Monday morning as to whether Kanye would honor his commitment to the show, and while it was great that he did come on, what did his “apology” replace? And whose idea was it? I doubt it was Jay’s. Kanye never did answer the question of why he did it. He mentioned that he screwed up, didn’t think that Taylor would just leave. Of course the whole thing was blown out of proportion, but what else happened?

Kanye didn’t look at the audience or Jay, and he rambled on. Kanye looked like he was going to cry…mumbling, embarrassed, a kid who was doing something he had to do but didn’t want to, and Jay’s question, though asked sensitively, merely resulted in protracted awkwardness and too much dead air. People aren’t going to buy Kanye’s supposed “apology”, it was the usual celebrity narcissistic rubbish, of taking responsibility and the time to assess their role in the world. But he does have a point with regard to award shows, in that he still retains the naïve belief that they mean something, they reward the best. The video for “You Belong With Me” isn’t bad; it’s cute and fits the song well. It’s not inventive or sexy or as fun as “Single Ladies”, but again, “Single Ladies” was up for Video of the Year, a much bigger award, and the VMAs are as much as about popularity as they are for name recognition. Kanye’s had some great videos and songs, too, and he’s been incredibly fortunate that he’s as successful and genre-changing as he is, and that he’s recognized for it, too, and that despite his massive ego, it hasn’t totally overshadowed his work, though again his taste for toolishness has threatened to do so once again.

Interesting choice to run with headlines at the end, especially after the high energy of Rihanna, Kanye, and Jay-Z. It was Rihanna’s first public appearance since her altercation with Chris Brown, and, as befitting the song, she was tough, with just a stripe of blond underneath her cap to differentiate herself. Great performance, though Kanye was impotent until his verse three-quarters into the song, where he was his usual self. Rihanna looked happy. As much as I enjoy “Headlines” (and he opened with his trademark line, “It’s Monday—Time for Headlines!”), it was a letdown after such a performance. I’m not ready to go to bed yet!

There are some people who say that’s the problem, that Jay’s corny humor is meant to be dozed off too, a relaxing nightcap. Maybe. But there are people who go to bed at 11.

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