Will America forgive Jay Leno? Can the comedian who built a career on his just-one-of-the-guys niceness overcome the negative publicity surrounding the Late-Night Wars of 2010 and retake his position as a ratings king 10 months after he ceded his "Tonight Show" desk to Conan O'Brien?
The answers will begin to become clear when Leno returns to "Tonight" on Monday (March 1) and encounters a TV landscape that has undergone significant changes in the last few months. To begin, David Letterman now reigns as the late-night champ, and his "Late Show" lineup this week — Bill Murray, Mitt Romney, Jerry Seinfeld, Tom Hanks and Matt Damon — represents the booking equivalent of a we-ain't-going-down-without-a-fight battle cry. What's more, NBC has returned the 10 p.m. hour to scripted programming — including new comedies like "Parenthood" and old favorites like "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: SVU" — meaning Leno won't have to deal with a middling talk show as his lead-in, as Conan had to with "The Jay Leno Show."
But Leno's prospects for success with his rebooted "Tonight Show" will rest solely on his chin. The host averaged 5.2 million viewers for "Tonight" before Conan took over, and then he averaged 5.3 million in prime time. Jay undoubtedly has a loyal following. Whether those viewers became comfortable watching Letterman or were turned off during the late-night brouhaha remains to be seen. We can expect Leno to debut big this week. The key will be to see how he performs in the weeks to come.
What will "Tonight 2.0" look like? Leno is staying in the same studio he occupied during his prime-time show, but it's received a makeover that will have the set sporting a new color scheme and once again displaying the familiar desk-and-couch interview configuration. You'll hardly notice the departure of announcer John Melendez, while bandleader Kevin Eubanks, who's rumored to be working toward an eventual exit, will still be there to chuckle at even Leno's most groan-inducing quips. Leno is importing some successful bits from his 10 o'clock show, including field reports from other comedians and the "Cop N Kitty" sketch, as well as old standards like headlines and Jaywalking. The week's guest lineup features Jamie Foxx, Sarah Palin, the "Jersey Shore" cast and Olympians Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White. It will be interesting to see how directly Leno addresses the circumstances surrounding the premiere show. Will he reference the ugliness in his opening monologue? And who will be watching if he does?
NBC has been pumping Leno's return with Olympic spots for the past two weeks, but the buildup pales in comparison to the "prime time will never be the same" circus that surrounded Jay's move to 10 p.m. There have been no interviews, save for a messy one with Oprah Winfrey back in January. NBC seems to be negotiating a tricky bit of programming wizardry, hoping viewers are aware that Jay is back at "Tonight," but when they click over on Monday night, they might just think Conan's "Tonight" stint was nothing but a bad dream.
Will O'Brien himself be watching? The deposed host has recently opened up a Twitter account, from which he's documented his unemployed life. "This morning I watched 'Remington Steele' while eating Sugar Smacks out of a salad bowl," he recently wrote. "I was naked."
Will Coco address the nation during the same time slot that Leno does? America will be watching.
Will you tune in for Leno's return to "The Tonight Show"? Have you soured on the comedian since the Conan O'Brien debacle? Let us know below!