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The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic blogs at TVWeek.com with wit, humor and strong opinion.

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Tom Shales


July 2008 Archives

A Modest Proposal: NBC Should Put Leno in Prime Time

July 25, 2008 10:49 AM

Jay Leno has arguably never been funnier—but why argue about it? As the date approaches (albeit slowly) for his exit from NBC’s “Tonight Show,” Leno is reveling in the role of Peck’s Bad Boy, tweaking NBC executives in jokes and asides, as when during a “Headlines” segment he displayed had a typo that had him appearing on ABC—and jokingly called it “a headline from the future.”

Here is a plan by which NBC could hold on to Leno and still give Conan O’Brien the 11:35 spot he has been promised in 2009: Strip “Leno” Mondays through Fridays at 10 p.m., calling it “The Jay Leno Hour” or something other than “The Tonight Show” and preserving the format pretty much as it is now—the most important ingredient being Leno’s rock ’n’ rollick monologue, which appears to be the only part of the show he really cares about anyway. That is by far its best element.

NBC could move its few successful 10 o’clock shows to 9 o’clock, already having given the 8 o’clock hour over to game and reality shows—i.e., junk, if sometimes amusing junk. Putting Leno and his topical monologue in prime time would give it a potentially larger audience than any “Tonight Show” host has ever had, a great showcase, really, for a master monologist.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be ironic if CBS decided to make Leno an offer for an 11:30 show on the grounds that Dave Letterman’s ratings stink a little more each year, and Letterman himself appears less and less interested in doing the show, and CBS honcho Les Moonves hates him anyway?

Letterman’s heart does not appear to be in his work, and the show is suffering from advanced torpor. Rumors have it that Letterman no longer bothers to drop by for rehearsals. His monologue is only three or four jokes long, perfunctorily read off cue cards. Then he sits lazily at a desk and introduces pretaped segments like “Great Presidential Speeches,” reading the intros off cue cards.

The show revolves around him, but he never seems very involved in it.

ABC reports that “Nightline,” even without the vaunted Ted Koppel, has been clobbering Letterman in the ratings this summer, both in the 25-54 demographic (admittedly not Letterman’s target audience) and in total viewers. For the record, Leno has slipped somewhat, too. It could be there are just too many late-night jokesters. And “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” get the jump on them with their scheduling on Comedy Central.

Potential solution: Give Leno the last hour of prime time each night Monday through Friday on NBC and see what happens. Costs would be lower than for a filmed, scripted, prime-time show and the profit margin way higher. And it might even make Leno happy, though, like all these late-night prima donnas, he exists largely to complain. Then again, so do critics (ahem).