Jay Leno launched his triumphant return to ‘The Tonight Show‘ Monday night. Although you would barely know it, for the comic and the network stayed relatively far away from the scandal that drove Conan O’Brien off the air. That was a smart move.
Leno took a public image beating during the Second Late Night Wars. As he and O’Brien jockeyed for ‘The Tonight Show,’ Leno consistently found himself being portrayed as the villain. He even sat down with Oprah to help bolster popular opinion. It may not have worked in the moment, but now that some time has passed, it looks like Leno could very well regain his fan base and again come out on top. That’s precisely because he and the network touched on and then ran from the scandal.
Last night’s ‘Tonight Show’ began with both a clever nod to his time in prime-time exile and ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ a beloved film with which few can take umbrage. His cast of characters, welcoming him back to Kansas, included band leader Kevin Eubanks and Ross “The Intern” and, most notably, Betty White, a woman more beloved that all of Oz, who remarked, “Look at this ratty ass barn…. NBC did cut your budget.” White’s may have been the biggest laugh of the night.
Later during his opening monologue, Leno quipped, “It’s good to be home. I’ll be your host for a little while,” before admitting that he was a bit nervous “because Dave and Oprah are watching,” a reference to the Super Bowl commercial he did with the other talk show titans, Letterman and Winfrey. Speaking of Letterman, Leno’s late night rival’s name came up twice. Curiously, Conan O’Brien’s came up never.
Another passing reference to the network shuffle came with a description of gold medalist Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn (who soon will be an NBC guest star): “When it comes to going downhill, nobodies faster. Except for NBC.”
Other than the Oz bit, the most conspicuous reference came in a surprisingly funny bit called “Jay Looks for His Desk,” in which Leno visited unsuspecting people and worked from their, well, desks while interviewing Randy Jackson and Adam Corolla. It was a clever, sincerely funny way to end the story and move on. And that’s definitely what NBC and Leno want. Yes, like his final ‘Jay Leno Show’ episode, Leno kept a distance from the drama.
In fact, one may not have truly realized that the episode was anything special had it not been for Leno’s first guest, Jamie Foxx, who came out and insisted the audience cheer “welcome back” before showering them in champagne.
It was an awkward, uncomfortable spectacle, in some ways, but definitely symbolic of how NBC must be feeling right now: They’re thrilled to have Leno back in the saddle, and clearly are hoping to move forward. Whether that’s possible remains to be seen: lining up guests like Sarah Palin, who’s on tonight, could definitely help shift the story.