THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Here’s hoping ‘Leno’ survives . . . but not as is. Here’s a blueprint for some necessary changes.

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / October 20, 2009

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It’s hard not to root for the underdog, and Jay Leno - despite his massive salary, his fleet of cars, his ownership of five prime hours of network TV - is the underdog. Knocked prematurely off his top-rated “Tonight Show’’ perch. Mocked for being a nice guy who appeals to Middle America. And now, hated by Hollywood for dominating prime time real estate, and pilloried for drawing the same number of viewers in his 10 p.m. slot as he routinely drew at 11:30.

I like Jay Leno, fundamentally. I don’t want his network career to end in failure. I don’t really need another cop or medical show at 10. And so I want “The Jay Leno Show’’ to go on.

Just better.

So far, alas, “The Jay Leno Show’’ has been a disappointment, too somnambulant for prime time. Leno is low-energy in his monologues, listless in his interviewing chair, a little bit bored reading the headlines, overwhelmed by his vast set. His booking agents are equally lax, bringing on a series of veteran comic guests that make his show seem like an ’80s and ’90s reunion. His “Ten @ Ten’’ segments, in which he quizzes celebrities in remote locations, seem to go on for hours. His “Green Car Challenge’’ racing segments are . . . circular.

Leno seems to know this. Recently, he has mocked his own low ratings. Arsenio Hall led an amusing romp through Compton, Calif., in which he asked black people what would make them watch the show. (Add jerking dancers, one of them explained, and in a brief clip, Leno obliged.) Last week, Leno introduced a faux TV show called “Cops and Doctors,’’ complete with “Law & Order’’ dum-DOOM sound effects, to soothe network executives who wanted more excitement at 10 p.m.

Those have been among the best segments of his show; self-awareness is useful for daily TV. But Leno could use his time slot to do something more distinctive and enduring. He could be a comedy curator.

Leno suggested the idea on his first-ever 10 p.m. show, explaining that he’d spent the off-air summer months going to comedy clubs, checking out new talent. He has collected a stable of lesser-known comics, but he generally uses them in filmed sketches that feel like second-rate “Daily Show’’ knock-offs. When comedian Liz Feldman taught senior citizens to use Twitter earlier this month, no one in the room had good material.

Leno should have just given Feldman the floor and let her spin her stand-up routine. He should do that every night, expand his talent pool, and make prime-time stand-up comedy a deliberate, stated mission of his show. Bring in celebrities, sure, if they have something new to say or something timely to promote. But Dana Carvey gave a plug for a hair salon last week - and “earned’’ it in part by doing his George H.W. Bush impression. It made Leno look irrelevant.

There was one moment in the Carvey interview, though, that gave insight into what Leno’s show could be.

Leno reminisced about judging a comedy competition in San Francisco in the late 1970s, then showed a clip of ’70s-era Carvey, fresh-faced and young, with Leif Garrett hair. Imagine what comics, with what hairstyles, are toiling in bars in different corners of the country. They could use a break and a prime-time forum. Leno could use a legacy.

And “The Jay Leno Show’’ could use a purpose, beyond being a way for Jay the car enthusiast to simply spin his wheels.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe .com. For more on TV, go to www.viewerdiscretion.net.

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