Talk, Talk, Talk

In the talk-show realm, where Stacy London now ventures, Jay Leno has long been king. But his reign is to end soon.

By Ken Parish Perkins

JAY LENO has long suffered from the Céline Dion complex - great voice but kind of boring. If you've heard one song, you've heard 'em all. The same goes for Leno's arsenal of jokes. In his 15 years at the helm of The Tonight Show, Leno has become a distributor of one-liners that are funny when they hit you, yet often leave as quickly as they arrive, like light rain on a sunny day. Leno's political barbs are now so calculatedly nonpartisan that they can be simultaneously funny and irritating. It's as if he counts them out, making sure Democrats get the same number of zingers as Republicans.

But that's actually what made Leno a hit with NBC executives in the first place. He was a perfect choice for Tonight back in May 1992, when audiences of network television were beginning to wither and executives wanted someone who could relate to crowds in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Branson, Missouri, with some of the same material - someone safe. The result: I'm afraid that, unless he acts to change it, Leno's legacy in late-night television will be simply that he helped put the "broad" back into broadcasting.

But therein lies an opportunity. As Leno prepares to depart Tonight in 2009, making way for the younger, goofier Conan O'Brien, perhaps having an end date will free the edgy comic who might yet lurk within. It seems almost certain, after all, that Leno will go out on top of the ratings. While David Letterman is merely hanging on to his 4.3 million viewers per night, Leno solidly draws about 5.8 million. He's the undisputed king of those numbers and has been for years. So as the lame duck of late night, why not take some risks now?

Sure, the stars won't make it easy. They're more calculating today, securing guest spots with Leno and Letterman and O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel to hawk their products and safeguard their images. Unfortunately, that's the way the interviews now come across to viewers, who are really hoping for glimpses of real people. But there is little incentive for Leno to play along with that salesmanship. He has the opportunity to return to the sort of raw, memorable material that defined him when he roamed the countryside like a comedic maniac. Here's hoping he does just that.