REASON TO WATCH: "Marking a new era in television," NBC says, without hyperbole.
WHEN/WHERE: Weeknights at 10 on NBC
Probably a minor error to simply consider this "The Tonight Show at 10," because NBC wants to distance "Leno" from the 11:35 franchise. But the similarities are inescapable. Leno has described this as a "big tent show," noting that he "grew up in the era of Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby and Jack Benny, and these are comics that would come out and just try to be funny and entertain whoever the audience happened to be."
The monologue - expect a big one - should fill up the early part of the show, followed by the guest interview. There's no desk - just two chairs. Favorite bits from "Tonight" days will be revived either later in the show or run at the very end, right into local news. Examples are standards like "Headlines," which will remain on Mondays, "Jaywalking," and perhaps a couple of others. Leno will cook up new material - bet on it. The plan is to have these air on different nights.
Then, there will be the comic correspondents. This is an extension of an old Leno "Tonight" innovation, such as when he had his pal Paula Poundstone "report" on the 1992 election. Leno will have nine reporters on his staff, and they will have different beats, like "The Daily Show's" reporters.
Did I mention that racetrack yet? Jay will have stars race little electric cars. Finally, music: A key element, in which famous stars will perform together.
The host says
"I'm still pretty laid-back. Like I say, NBC is in fourth place, and you can't do any worse. . . . At this point, people kind of know what I do," Leno said in a conference call last week.
Leno is a supremely competent performer, so put a bullet in the notion that tonight will be a disaster. It will be fine because Leno, more than any person alive, knows what he has to do and knows how to do this kind of program. His performance is not an issue, nor should it be.
The show's performance is another matter altogether. CBS will attempt to demolish "The Jay Leno Show" with its already powerful 10 p.m. dramas because both will compete directly for older viewers - they are CBS' lifeblood. NBC stations will worry, too, because if the last 15 minutes falter, then so will their 11 p.m. news. There's some well-founded industry speculation that if "The Jay Leno Show" stumbles, it will move to 10:30, while local news will air at 10. That is a real possibility. Like NBC said, this does mark a new era in television.