Because Jay Leno is a car guy (and, by all accounts, such a nice guy), I felt it was only fair to take his new NBC show on several test drives before weighing in with a review.
Plenty of critics jumped immediately on the Jay-bashing bandwagon after his debut this month. The nicer scribes compared his format to comfort food for his loyal fans. The meaner ones dubbed it a blander version of his usual “Tonight” shtick, which media hipsters didn’t enjoy much in the first place.
After watching “The Jay Leno Show” at 10 p.m. on and off for two weeks, I think he needs to fine-tune the engine of his prime-time vehicle. I don’t know yet if he’ll revolutionize TV programming. But he could improve his laugh mileage with a few repairs.
Simplify the set: There are wall grids, floor patterns, fussy little plants, big numeral 10s and a bunch of clunky, distracting features that resemble an HGTV design challenge gone awry. It’s not funky. It’s not innovative. It’s just ... busy.
Bring back a desk for the interviews: Two chairs might work in an intimate setting with no studio audience. But they seem artificially casual here. I keep looking at Leno’s posture or awkwardly crossed legs when I should be paying attention to the discussion.
Rethink “Ten(at)Ten”: Watching Tom Cruise, Miley Cyrus and Mel Gibson try to be funny on cue has been excruciating. I don’t know — or care — if the celebrities are given the 10 questions beforehand. What this segment needs is performers who actually know how to be funny (or, at least, some witty comebacks from Leno when the answers bomb).
Make “Earn Your Clip” more ridiculous: Having an actor work for a free plug is a fun idea. But letting Michael Moore sing a Bob Dylan song or Jennifer Garner name the starting lineup of hubby Ben Affleck’s beloved Red Sox is too easy. For the premise to succeed, the stars really need to shed their dignity and do something silly. Remember when David Letterman had Tom Selleck stick his head in a tub of water and impersonate a motorboat? Now that’s the idea.
Move the comedy highlights back to the beginning: I get it. Leno is trying to be a strong lead-in to local newscasts at 11 p.m. by saving bits like “Headlines” and “Jaywalking” until the end of the broadcast. But the scheduling gimmick is badly paced and irritating. It’s like being served an appetizer after the main course.
Like any new series, Leno’s show needs some time to settle into a creative groove. I’m not trading in every drama and reality show I watch now at 10 o’clock for him. But I plan to keep tuning in, if only to see what’s happening during “Top Chef” or “Project Runway” commercial breaks.
QUICK FIXES FOR OTHER LATE-NIGHT HOSTS
David Letterman: You don’t need an extra-long monologue, “Small Town News” or “Fun Facts” to get the hilarity started. Just give us more of what you do best — sitting behind a desk and sharing your random cranky musings.
Conan O’Brien: You’re funny just being yourself. Leave the costume sketches — like the telenovela parody where you play “Conando” — to “Saturday Night Live.”
Jimmy Kimmel: How about a month off from “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship”? Those bleeps and blurs that make innocuous moments seem rude could use a rest.
Jimmy Fallon: It’s OK to be tech-savvy, but enough with audience-participation cell phone contests and weird Bing promotional games.
Craig Ferguson: Three words: Lose the puppets.
LATE-NIGHT GETS 2 NEW CHOICES
Can’t find enough hilarity and talk on the TV landscape? Good news. The crowded field soon will include two newcomers.
“The Wanda Sykes Show” (11 p.m., Nov. 7, Fox). The comedienne and co star of “The New Adventures of Old Christine” is getting a weekly series in the space formerly occupied by “Mad TV.” If she’s as irreverent a host as she is a guest, this could be interesting.
“Lopez Tonight” (11 p.m., Nov. 9, TBS). George Lopez is bringing the party back to late night, according to his cable network. And he’s got a very important pal — maybe you’ve seen the promo with him and President Barack Obama.