Nobody has ever suggested that Jay Leno in his new prime-time slot would blaze new televisual trails for political humor. Jay, after all, has never been a particularly edgy entertainer. He's like a Big Mac, a juicy dependable American staple served up with all the familiar ingredients, and nary a surprise in store.
Nevertheless, the NBC brass have sought to create some buzz about Jay's plans to bedazzle people with political humor while they're still wide awake. Ben Silverman, one of the guys who greased the move to prime time, was quoted the other day as saying, "What we're so excited about is how important topical comedy is right now. All our research showed that America wants more comedy."
Well, I caught Jay's debut show last night, and suffice it to say that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher need not quake in their shoes. Not that anybody should be shocked, but, given the massive publicity buildup, devotees of political humor were clearly led to believe that Jay would serve up a little something outside the realm of the comfy cozy.
Instead, I got the impression that, in addition to Jay's instinctive intent to play his shots down the middle of the middle of the fairway, there was also an institutional imperative on the big night to steer clear of all risk. Hollywood being Hollywood, a lot of people are rooting for Jay's show to fail, and therefore it may well have been deemed prudent to protect the first week's ratings by minimizing the odds that some viewers might find themselves offended.
So here's what we got:
A Dick Cheney punch line that could've been uttered six years ago. (The University of Wyoming is apparently opening a Dick Cheney Center for International Students, prompting Jay to quip, "Now, really, who loves foreigners more than Dick Cheney?")
A Joe Biden punch line on a topic that's roughly nine months old. (Referring to Joe Wilson's House outburst, Jay quipped: "I'll tell ya, Vice President Biden really upset about President Obama being interrupted, he said, 'Hey, that's my job!")
A George W. Bush visual gag about him being a doofus, a theme that's about eight years old. (He's riding his mountain bike a lot these days. Cut to a video of a mountain bike rider taking a huge spill on a hillside.)
A joke about the health care debate that was probably lost on any viewer younger than 65 years old. (Referring to the current scare tactics, Jay said, "You see that commercial, where the older couple gets mailed a box from Liberty Medical, and it's got Wilfred Brimley's head in it?" I haven't seen a Wilfred Brimley ad for Liberty medical since 2007. Dare we suggest that there might be edgier material in the health care debate than Wilfred Brimley?)
A joke about Barack Obama's determination to be a symbolic healer. (Jay says Obama will invite Kanye West and Taylor Swift to the White House for a root beer summit. Because, he hastened to explain, Taylor Swift is only 19, so, you see, it has to be root beer.)
There was a chance to say something edgy about Joe Wilson, or perhaps about the angry reaction to Joe Wilson, but instead Jay straddeled: "Joe Wilson yelled out 'you lie' to the president. So - at least the two sides are talking! There's dialogue!" (Translation: appeal to the broadest number of viewers by tapping their shared desire for more civility and less partisan strife.)
There was a chance to say something edgy about the family-values California Republican assemblyman, Mike Duvall, who last week was caught on tape boasting about how he had sex with two lobbyists, but instead Jay broadened it out to a general plague on all houses: "A politician bragging about having sex with two lobbyists. Now, I'm no mathemetician, but I believe that's a total of three whores, right?"
What else...There was a Biden/Pelosi joke about Cialis; an Obama joke about Viagra (didn't Viagra jokes peak with Bob Dole, circa 1997?); a quick joke about Walmart (a reliably fat target) paying its workers in pesos; a cash-for-clunkers joke that could have either lampooned big government, or lampooned the conservatives who took advantage of the program, but instead Jay the car aficionado quipped about himself ("I made $5 billion!"). And much later, he did his familiar goofy newspaper typos routine, using the stuff sent in by older viewers who still apparently read the fine print in the dead-tree medium (may they live forever).
Meanwhile, there wasn't so much as a mirthful word about the weekend anti-Obama protests that dominated the cable news coverage, or about Obama's Monday speech to the stone-faced barons of Wall Street. A nightly prime-time show that aspires to political topicality might want to be a bit more nimble about breaking news.
There once was a time - say, 20 years ago - when a politician quaked at the prospect of being flogged by the broadcast network wiseasses. I recall writing, back in 1988, that if the pols were in trouble with Johnny Carson, "chances are they're in deep doo-doo with the American mainstream," because Johnny (and Jay, his frequent guest host) would tap into what the mainstream was thinking and take it up a notch on the satirical scale. Here was Johnny, for instance, zapping Democratic candidate (and confessed womanizer) Gary Hart: "Gary has a new proposal - a halfway house for girls who don't go all the way."
But now Jay is up against the scabrous satirists and ironists (Stewart, Maher, Colbert) who are truly pioneering this so-called golden age of political humor in the slots prior to 11:30, and the betting here is that he'll need to raise his game and take some risks in order to attract and retain the young and the media-savvy.