Leno’s Long Drive Home

Jay’s back Monday – but “Tonight” can never be like it was yesterday

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Mar 1, 2010  |  Updated 1:37 PM EDT
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Jay Leno's Tonight Show Farewell

NBC

It's a new day for "The Tonight Show."

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An early idea reportedly floated for the promo touting Jay Leno's return to "The Tonight Show" was for him to surprise Victoria Principal by showing up in the shower.

The reference, for those of us old enough to remember, harkens to the "Dallas" gimmick a quarter-century ago when the season after Bobby Ewing died turned out to be a dream. Pam woke up and there was Bobby in the shower, as if the last couple dozen episodes never happened.

The Leno-"Dallas" bit was rejected, maybe because it seems both dated and a tad obvious. But the comparison is apt in ways perhaps not intended: "Dallas" wasn't the same after Bobby died – and it would never be the quite same again after his unlikely resurrection.

Leno, who returns to the vaunted 11:35 p.m. timeslot Monday, arrives knowing that life on the ranch has changed forever.

Unlike the "Dallas" machinations all those years ago, the Leno soap opera has played as much off screen as on.

His primetime stint, as well chronicled by now, quickly became seen as the New Coke of programming moves. Conan O'Brien slammed NBC even as he negotiated his $30 million-plus good-bye. David Letterman, No. 1 in the ratings for the first time in more than 15 years, used his monologue to taunt Leno, the former pal who outmaneuvered him to replace Johnny Carson nearly two decades ago.

Leno fired back, even mentioning Letterman’s marriage in one barb. And it’s a good bet their surprise reunion on a recent Super Bowl commercial did little more than further stoke their rivalry.

Fairly or not, Leno's Mr. Nice Guy status has taken a beating. So he's falling back on another aspect of his reputation, as the hardest working man in late night.

He's been busy lining up guests, and is betting on some pop from the Winter Olympics. Skier Lindsey Vonn is among the opening night guests, and Leno is due to welcome at least a couple other U.S. medal winners during the week. Sarah Palin, the controversy and ratings magnet, is set to visit Tuesday.

Leno’s high gear approach is in sync with the energetic, souped-up image he’s promoting. Anyone who caught any of the Olympics (which covers just about everyone near a television during the last two weeks) has seen the first promo Leno settled on.

The auto enthusiast is behind the wheel of a sports car with the number 10 on the side. As he picks up speed, the racing decal peals away to reveal “11:35” – his new/old timeslot. Leno confidently looks into the camera as the chorus from the Beatles' "Get Back" plays: "Get back to where you once belonged."

Some see the spot as a dig at O’Brien, which isn’t going to help Leno reclaim his nice-guy standing. (A parody on Funny or Die replaces “Get Back” with Radiohead’s “Creep,” which includes the line, “I don’t belong here.”)

But then again, who can afford to be polite during a ratings war – unlike the clear stretch of highway pictured in the commercial, Leno’s road back is filled with landmines.

A re-energized Letterman is schedule to host Jerry Seinfeld (the first guest on Leno’s primetime show) on Monday, and will pit Mitt Romney against fellow conservative Palin Tuesday. TBS’s George Lopez arrived on the late-night scene after Leno left, and Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert is due for a post-Olympics bump of his own.

O’Brien, meanwhile, could return to TV in some form as early as September. He’s also making his voice heard, if only on Twitter – tapping into the younger audience that’s largely eluded Leno and letting them know he’s still around to make them laugh. "This is only my 5th tweet and I’m already exhausted," O'Brien tweeted Sunday. "My God, how does Ashton do it?"

Leno’s first week of shows is likely to get a lot of attention from viewers and the press, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll ultimately pull into the No. 1 spot again. Whatever route he takes to get back, it’s clear that “Tonight” can never be like what it was yesterday.
 

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