Jay Leno celebrated an anniversary last night, and it's characteristic of him that he didn't make a big deal about it. September 24th marked the 1000th episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno and while he didn't formally toast the event, the show that he did do illustrated everything that's right and wrong with the program.
The show opened with a sight gag, Leno walking across the stage as a counter clicked from 999 to 1000. But the monologue that followed was as mundane as his usual effort. Sometimes when you watch him work, longtime fans must wonder where his comedic inner clock has disappeared to. As a stand-up comedian, Leno was always able to find the perfect punchline for a joke. He was well known for honing and honing material until it was flawless-with not a spare word in the sentence.
But as a talk show host, much of that inner sense of humor has seemed to evaporate into the ether. Even on his 1000th episode-on what should be a special occasion-Leno only got three jokes into his monologue before he hit a wall, commenting, "Geez, you think I would have learned more in 1000 shows." Part of the problem is that he simply does too many jokes up front. No matter how talented your writing staff, you can't crank out 9 or 10 minutes worth of material a night. That sort of pressure leads to a mind-numbing procession of inane punchlines and mugging that would have mortified a younger Leno.
They have tried to work around the problem by inserting a number of brief pre-taped bits into his monologue. So the audience is treated to quick visual jokes of a Clinton look-alike puffing on a bong to the caption, "Got Pot?". On this, like on most, the quick bits get the biggest laughs, but even those are unfocused and only hitting 50% of the time.
After the monologue, he did a bit called, "What I have Learned", which involved Leno introducing taped pieces that are supposed to illustrate the many things he's learned over the course of 1000 shows. This was not his finest moment, especially when you consider that the funniest line involved Jason Alexander picking a huge wad of lint out of his navel. What has Jay learned? Apparently, not enough.
It's when Leno brings out his guests that he really shows what he's learned. Leno is by no means a flawless interviewer. But over the 1000 shows he's learned much about what it takes to bring the best out of a guest. And he's able to smoothly nudge the interview in the direction he needs it to go.
The guests were Michael Jordan and Elizabeth Hurley and in both cases he did what he was supposed to do. He allowed them to promote their current project and still kept the program from teetering into an informercial. Unlike David Letterman, who oftentimes is anti-social to the extremes, Leno seems to genuinely like most people and that comfort translates into a gently entertaining program.
Watching the Tonight Show on a regular basis can be a frustrating experience. Watching Leno work is like watching Pete Rose play baseball in his last troubled season. Everyone loves him, and you still see the flashes of greatness. But all too often, he's just coasting on memories.