Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Retro Leno

Q: Jay Leno is back in his 11:30 p.m. "Tonight Show" slot, after a disappointing run in prime time and a messy showdown with Conan O'Brien, who briefly replaced him. Can Leno win back his status as king of late night and all-around nice guy? As viewers turn away from the networks, can anyone be expected to dominate an increasingly splintered audience? Are the days of Johnny Carson-like success over?

Hopelessly retro -- and not in a good way! What was Jay Leno thinking?

I think he made a big mistake by opening his "comeback" show with a sepia-toned skit from the Wizard of Oz. This powerful visual reference resonates deeply with an audience skewing toward the far side of Social Security. More than 70 years have come and gone since Judy Garland (Dorothy) woke up on that Kansas farmhouse bed, surrounded by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr (the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion).

While this classic film has cycled endlessly over the years, I suspect that most younger viewers (like under age 50) might not have recognized the sketch's classic pedigree.

Leno's choice of material perfectly illustrates the problem with his return to the Tonight show. He is trying too hard to recapture a past that is long gone. He's channeling Johnny Carson in the Age of Avatar. Jay wants to be Johnny's avatar, but the majority of the viewing audience have no idea who Carson was. The Tonight Show format imitates an entertainment style that was most popular during the Nixon years.

Sure, some older folk will be very happy to have Jay back on the Tonight Show. Probably most are the kind of viewers who speak possessively of television shows, as in, "I have to watch my show" as if they were the producer, director and star.

We all know "my show" people. They dislike newfangled upstarts like Letterman. When did cynicism and irony become entertaining? They surely do not get their news from that Internet thing. They have landline telephones. And they might not even have cable.

If Leno wants to reclaim his top ratings, he will have to figure out how to capture some new demographics without alienating the "my show" crowd. He needs new writers who can put a sharper edge into that well-worn monologue, maybe venturing into more genuine political satire. He might also learn to do real interviews, not simply pitch softballs to new starlets or aging marquee men who are appearing for extended promos of upcoming movies.

For a real attention-grabbing change, Leno could also get a fashion makeover. Why do late-night hosts think they need to wear business suits? If there's one thing that screams "my father's show," it's that suit and tie.

Of course, Jay Leno can simply keep tap dancing down the yellow brick road of soft jokes and softer banter with his guests. He might even make the ratings of that Wicked Witch Letterman start melting. Who knows, Leno might even find his way back to Emerald City some day. But those of us who are old enough to remember Toto also know how the story ends -- Dorothy woke up and the dream was over.

If Leno wants to have a successful new run on the Tonight Show, he has to remake the show for today's edgier tastes, leaving Oz for the munchkins who are asleep after supper.

By Patricia McGuire  |  March 4, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Comeback attempts Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Ms McGuire is correct on a few points. Leno needs GOOD writers, not just edgy ones. Leno should drop his outright pandering to political hacks and celebrity clowns just to get a blip in his sorry ratings. And finally, Leno needs to just needs to fade away in VHF signal snow...a bad memory that is forgotten the next morning when REAL programming begins anew.

Posted by: monel7191 | March 6, 2010 12:04 AM
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Jay Leno is hanging on. It's painful to watch. He's not funny, he loses control of his show, he tries too hard to be Carson. Conan O'Brien was naturally funny, and yes, he tried hard as well. But he handles it a lot better than Leno. Conan is just more creative, and A LOT better at improv. Leno might be back on top in the short term, but in about 3-5 years, he'll be too old hack to watch. And his core audience will die. Conan will be back, he'll have a huge Gen X and Y following (a very difficult audience to capture now) and he's going to be on top for a long time. NBC will regret crossing him.

Posted by: tbantug | March 5, 2010 1:04 PM
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Did you have any idea how patronizing you sound? If I wanted to watch Colbert or Stewart before going to bed, that's who I'd be watching. Don't get me wrong. Edgy has its place, but not when I'm trying to unwind. Seems to me that Leno knows his audience, and his audience isn't stupid.

Posted by: martinezbd | March 5, 2010 11:02 AM
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Patricia,

I think you're right on some counts, wrong on others. I'm surprised you don't think the under 50 crowd recognized that Leno's opening skit was taken from the Wiz/Oz. As you point out, the classic is cycled every year, so most everyone in the country knows it.

That said, I agree the show needs to be edgier. More specifically, it needs to be more relevant and satirize current topics. He needs to take a page from Stewart/Colbert and interview newsmakers -- e.g., politicians, 15-minutes of fame seekers, heroes -- and make it informative and funny. If he can hang with Colbert/Stewart, he doesn't belong out there.

Finally, he needs to stay away from corny skits -- especially lengthy ones -- like the one last night about the police cat.


Posted by: JohnnnyD | March 5, 2010 10:23 AM
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Pat,

I think you're right on some counts, wrong on others. I'm surprised you don't think the under 50 crowded recognized that Leno's opening scene was taken from the Wiz. As you point out, the classic is cycled every year, so most everyone in the country knows it.

That said, I agree the show needs to be edgier. More specifically, it needs to be more relevant and deal with current events, whether political, cultural, etc. He needs to take a page from Stewart/Colbert and satirize issues that everyday Americans are facing, and make them funny.

Finally, he needs to stay away from corny skits -- especially lengthy ones -- like the one last night about the police cat.


Posted by: JohnnnyD | March 5, 2010 10:19 AM
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Pat,

I think you're right on some counts, wrong on others. I'm surprised you don't think the under 50 crowd didn't recognize that Leno's opening scene was taken from the Wiz. As you point out, the classic is cycled every year, so most everyone in the country knows it.

That said, I agree the show needs to be edgier. More specifically, it needs to be more relevant and satirize current events much more. He needs to take a page from Stewart/Colbert, and interview newsmakers much more (i.e., whoever is in the news at the moment, whether politician, 15-minutes of fame seekers, heroes, etc) and seek info while making it funny/cutting.

Finally, he needs to stay away from corny skits -- especially lengthy ones -- like the one last night about the police cat.


Posted by: JohnnnyD | March 5, 2010 10:11 AM
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