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In Defense of ‘The Jay Leno Show’

Leno might not be this generation’s Sid Caesar, but he’s no Alan Thicke, either.

When it comes to the world of television critics, admitting a fondness for Jay Leno gets you about the same street cred as arguing that "Coach" was the funniest TV comedy of the past 30 years. At best, your fellow critics are going to think you’re misguided. At worst, they’ll think you’re an idiot.

Despite all of that peer pressure, I find myself jumping to the defense of Jay Leno and his controversial primetime talk show. Not because I think it’s the best idea of the season, but because I think a lot of the criticism being tossed his way is misguided and ill-informed.

Leno has often been knocked not for what he does, but for who he’s not. Critics dislike the guy because he’s not David Letterman, because he’s seen as a go-along company man and because many industry people feel he didn’t deserve the mantle as head of "The Tonight Show."

But the truth is that audiences felt differently. Leno’s "Tonight Show" consistently beat Letterman in the ratings like he was a pinata. Yes, ratings aren’t the complete measure of a performer’s worth, but it’s a pretty good indication of an audience’s feelings. Especially when examined over a long period of time. And like it or not, Leno is a popular performer.

Now it’s true that Jay Leno hasn’t always made it easy for his admirers. Of all the modern-day talk show hosts, he’s the only one who could be considered to be a strong stand-up performer. And yet throughout his run on "The Tonight Show," his monologues were often the weakest part of the show. He’s quick-witted and able to handle a live crowd, but his talk show was so thought out and rehearsed that it often seemed stale even when the conversation was compelling.

So why do I have a fondness for the guy? Part of it is that when you watch Jay Leno night after night, you begin to see this evil Jay popping out when you least expect it. When he allows himself to ad-lib a bit with guests, the results can be hilarious and unexpected. And while he’s not an especially gifted interviewer, he does have a fan’s eye towards the celebrities that can bring out some real insight.

I’ll stay away from the argument of whether NBC should have given Leno a five night-a-week primetime series. They’ve done it, so let’s just go from there. Is the "Jay Leno Show" worth watching?

I’ve seen every episode of the show, in part because I’ve been writing nightly reviews of the series. Yes, there are some weak segments and even some lackluster shows. But overall, "The Jay Leno Show" is consistently funnier than "Saturday Night Live" and is often the most entertaining show in its timeslot.

The show has quite a bit over the weeks and for the most part, the changes have been positive. Leno has showcased segments from many of today’s most original comics, and those bits are often some of the funniest things on television. From "Jim Norton’s Uninvited Guest" commentaries to edited pieces such as Arsenio Hall’s trip to Compton, the pieces are more variety show than anything else. They’re distinctive, hilarious and great showcases for some very talented comedians.

Leno’s monologue has evolved for the better in recent weeks. He’s managed to find a populist political bent in some of his humor, and those jokes are the ones that consistently work the best. He still relies a bit too much on monologue jokes with no real punch line other than "What’s up with that?" But these new political joke — along with some quickie filmed segments — have improved the quality of his opening segment immensely.

Ironically, the other broadcast network’s apparent unofficial ban against appearing on the show has forced the talker to book a wider range of guests. From Rush Limbaugh to Kanye West, the lack of mainstream television stars has proved to be a blessing. The show has also managed to include a number of other guests into the mix by skillfully using celebrities in running bits such as "JMZ" and in the regular "Ten @10" Q&A segment. As a result, some episodes include five or six guests, which is rather impressive given the challenges of booking a primetime talk show that has little support in the industry.

And you know, I like the "Headlines" segment and the weird video clips drawn from various online sites.

Now while I admire and often enjoy "The Jay Leno Show," there are still a lot of problems with the show. Like Leno’s "Tonight Show," the guest segments are often so rehearsed and structured that it seems as if everyone is reading off of cue cards while being held hostage. For example, a recent Rod Stewart interview was frustratingly choppy and wooden.

There was a clumsy "Earn Your Plug" bit and the best part of the conversation between Leno and Stewart seems to have taken place during the commercial. Leno needs to be free to be himself, and if he stumbles every so often, so be it. That stumbling is much preferable to the overly structured interview segments audiences have to suffer through right now. I loathe the "Green Car Challenge" segments.

But at the end of the day, I find myself enjoying "The Jay Leno Show" despite its faults. As a guy who spent more than a decade as a stand-up comedian, I admire anyone who takes on the challenge of five hours of live primetime programming every week.

While the ratings for the show may not be at the level the show needs to survive, they aren’t a disaster, either. NBC rightfully expects the show to get a lot of sampling from audiences once its scripted competitors go to reruns. And while you’re hearing a lot of grumbling from some of NBC’s affiliates, a closer examination shows that many of those station’s complaints are less about Leno and more about them seeing the chance to grab an extra hour of airtime for local programming. Some NBC affiliates have long envied their Fox competitor’s ability to air a 10:00 pm local newscast. And if complaints about Leno are the wedge to get the timeslot, then that’s what they’ll use.

So ignore your feelings about NBC executives and about whether or not television in general would be better served by filling this time slot with five hours a week of scripted programming. If you watch "The Jay Leno Show" with an open mind, you might be surprised at what you see. Jay Leno might not be this generation’s Sid Caesar, but he’s no Alan Thicke, either.

"The Jay Leno Show" deserves to be judged on its own merits. And when you do that, you might be startled by just how much you enjoy the show.

Rick Ellis is a journalist currently living in the Twin Cities. He has written about television and the media business for more than a decade. His reporting has been cited in Vanity Fair, The Nation, The Washington Post and a number of other media outlets, as well as in more than a dozen books.

He is the founder and managing editor of AllYourTV.com.

Previously, Rick spent 10 years as a stand-up comedian, four years as a syndicated radio talk show host and five years as an editor for Internet Broacasting, a company that manages websites for local television affiliates. As the managing editor of an NBCOO website, he led it to a Regional Murrow Award.