One of the bigger ironies surrounding Jay Leno's primetime debut Monday is that NBC, he says, wanted him out as host of The Tonight Show even earlier than planned.
In today's New York Times, the comic says the network approached him in 2004 with a plan to replace him as the late-night show's host in three years, when it wanted Conan O'Brien to take over. Leno says he told network executives, “Let's make it five.”
In June, O'Brien took the reigns of the late-night television's greatest franchise, but not before Leno secured a deal to go primetime with The Jay Leno Show, which debuts at 10 p.m. Monday.
The move would seem to make Leno an even bigger fish at a network that once saw him as dead wood. There is some wisdom to letting a big-tent comic with middle-American sensibilities take a stab at a weeknight run: The costs of putting on such a “live” show are so low that Leno's goal line of about two million viewers is stunningly modest. In the age of YouTube and cable, however, that's a hit.
Whether or not comedy will benefit is another matter altogether. As New York magazine implies in a cover story about David Letterman this week (it's titled “Leno Who?”), Leno has lost his edge. The piece notes that Letterman once called Leno “the funniest stand-up guy working.” Today's Leno shtick, it says, is a “risk-free franchise.”
As the comic prepares to take on a less-groggy America, he better hope so.