We're two weeks in to NBC's "Comedy at 10" experiment and there's not much to show for it. The ratings for the first 10 episodes of The Jay Leno Show are abysmal. But NBC's expectations for the "it's so cheap to make that we don't care if no one watches" strategy means that it doesn't really matter. Leno 2.0 is going to be around for a long time, because its metric for success isn't very high. But more important than the ratings is the fact that The Jay Leno Show is simply awful.
Leno's hair is different, his jokes are not. Friday night, he opened his monologue with jokes about the weather, and although the tone made it seem like he was aware of the hokeyness of telling jokes about the weather, the jokes themselves were hokey -- one about cougars fighting over a glass of chardonnay, one about two dogs on the lawn having phone sex. Then he made roughly his 75 millionth joke about Cialis. The monologue, like every other segment on this show is too long, and watching it feels like work. The jokes are broad and obvious, and you hear better punchlines to the same setups elsewhere. For instance, Weekend Update Thursday's take on a Wal-Mart's offer of a $10 gift card for customers who undergo syphilis testing was if "you see a guy in new Wrangler jeans and a Faded Glory flannel, he has syphilis." That's just funnier and more astute than Leno's suggestion for a "bring your own crabs" promotion at Red Lobster.
Then there are the new segments, some with corporate sponsorship, like one painfully long segment about Bing image search, and a totally ridiculous 5 seconds called the "Beer Pong" shot of the week. The former is a one-note joke played for the length of a symphony, and created entirely to cash a check from Microsoft. The latter is something that seems like it was conceived as something to be mocked on The Tonight Show but abandoned as too easy a target. Writing in this week's New Yorker, Nancy Franklin describes another of the new segments, "The 10 @ 10." Franklin writes:
"Leno and NBC are really pushing the number ten—as in 10 P.M.—in an attempt to brand the hour as belonging to Leno. The number does double duty in the title of a regular segment, “Ten @ Ten,” even though the segment is never actually shown at that hour; it comes later. It’s a question-and-answer bit, wherein a celebrity on location somewhere is called up via satellite and asked ten questions that will supposedly elicit funny or edifying responses. Tom Cruise was asked if he had ever been to a strip club. (“No,” he said—and the audience booed, a reaction I don’t think I want to understand.) Amy Poehler was asked to name as many national parks as she could in fifteen seconds (because she stars in a show called “Parks and Recreation”). Mel Gibson was asked, I kid you not, “What is your favorite thing to eat for dinner?,” “Where do you keep your Academy Awards?,” and “Worst job you ever had?” Leno calls himself “a big-tent guy,” but this isn’t big-tent show business; this is the saddest of carnivals."
Franklin is right. Even Leno doesn't seem to be impressed by the show. Every joke he delivers is followed by a sort of apologetic shrug, probably meant to be charming and affable. But the shrug reads more like an apology for wasting everyone's time. And that's the fatal flaw of The Jay Leno Show: It's totally superfluous. There was a time when NBC aired critically and commercially successful shows at 10 PM. This was something that was much harder to do than what Leno does, but also with a much higher reward potential. By switching to the new format, and ceding 1/3 of their weekly programming to the same mediocre and little-watched show, they're aren't changing the game so much as refusing to play. And it shows.