The scene could have come straight out of a taped segment from Jay Leno's version of "The Tonight Show": The host, disguised as a bald Uber driver sporting hipster whiskers, whisks around unsuspecting passenger.
"If you could have Jay Leno or Dave Letterman be your driver, which one would you choose?" he asks a young woman sitting in the backseat.
The hidden-camera bit drives a preview for "Jay Leno's Garage," a show built around the comedian's well-known love for cars. Some 20 months after he left "The Tonight Show" for good, Leno has gone from "Jaywalking" to Jayriding with the new program, which debuts Wednesday on CNBC. He's earned a trip on his own terms.
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Leno’s question to his passenger suggests, jokingly or otherwise, that he's not ready to leave behind his infamous feud with Letterman, which erupted nearly a quarter-century ago over who would replace Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."
The new, gentler Leno-Letterman competition, though, takes place in another arena: life after late night. Their shared role model Carson didn't leave them much of a guide. He all but disappeared from public life after his final broadcast in 1992, save for a couple of cameos on Letterman's "Late Show."
In July, Letterman made a surprise appearance during a Steve Martin-Martin Short event in San Antonio and delivered a Top 10 list of “Interesting Facts About Donald Trump” (No. 10: “That thing on his head was the gopher in ‘Caddyshack’”).
Letterman has made rumblings about returning to the entertainment world in some form. And he’s cited the example of Jerry Seinfeld, whose web show "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" offers a fun, low-key way to keep in the spotlight without raising expectations of ever topping "Seinfeld." (In a chat with Seinfeld last year, Letterman said he was “envious” of him and joked about starting a program called, "Comedians On Horseback Getting Coffee.")
Leno seems to be following the roadmap of fellow auto aficionado Seinfeld, combining frequent stand-up appearances and with a modest, tightly focused show designed to get laughs by sharing a personal interest.
The CNBC program, which promises looks at classic cars and “super cars” with guests that include Laurence Fishburne, Keanu Reeves and Tim Allen, seems to run at about the right pace for a comic with a familiar style – and look – that's built for comfort. In the hidden camera segment, the young woman tells her Uber driver that she finds Leno more interesting than Letterman because of “that chin” – showing that Leno is willing to take a compliment and insult wrapped into one for the cause of comedy.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.