‘The Tonight Show’ Returns: Five Things We’d Like To See

The month of January was rife with tension at the 11:30 p.m. time slot. That’s where a showdown happened between NBC, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno, with the future of the nearly six-decade-old “Tonight Show” hanging in the balance. When the dust settled, O’Brien exited as the host after only seven months, Leno’s primetime show was canceled and NBC re-installed Leno as the host of “The Tonight Show.” Following a brief hiatus for coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Monday night (March 1) sees the return of Leno’s version of “The Tonight Show.”

Leno spent 17 years at the helm of “The Tonight Show,” so the audience should know what they’re in for at this point. But just because Leno has a comfort zone that elevated him to the top of the ratings heap in late night, that doesn’t mean there can’t be some curveballs. Obviously, Leno’s version of “The Tonight Show” won’t be as delightfully off-kilter as O’Brien’s was (that’s just not Leno’s game), but there can be a few subtle shifts that could lead to something great. Here are five things we’d like to see from the Leno 2.0 version of “The Tonight Show.”

More Upstart Comedians
One of the aspects of the much-derided “The Jay Leno Show” that worked was Leno’s commitment to upstart comics. “The Tonight Show” was initially the big break that a stand-up looked for to get his career going on other avenues. But as the show got more and more Hollywood, it became less about that. Leno should re-commit himself to giving funny people a leg up.

More Remote Action
One of the big problems with “The Jay Leno Show” was the fact that it was basically tethered to the studio. Sure, they sometimes went out back to race cars, but that always seemed like a cool idea that was never particularly entertaining. Jay should get outside the studio with remote shoots and hit the road more often. When you get outside the comfort zone of the studio, some real unpredictable fun can happen.

Retire “Headlines”
This is probably wishful thinking considering this is probably Leno’s signature segment. But as a show of commitment to change, Leno should make a big deal out of burying it. It’s almost never funny and has the stink of the past on it. If he wants to stop being derided by Letterman and Kimmel, he should replace it with another news-centric bit.

Commit To Music
The two late night Jimmys (Kimmel and Fallon) have both lapped Leno and Letterman as far as musical guests go, as they always invite cool people from all corners of the music world. Leno should get in on the ground floor of a genre and welcome some cool people. Perhaps “The Tonight Show” becomes the stop for world music, folk or country?

Stay Angry
Here’s the thing: People have already decided whether or not they like Jay Leno, and the folks who sided with Team Coco during January have labeled him a villain. Why not embrace the heel persona? Some of the most popular characters in professional wrestling have been the bad guys, so Leno should go ahead and embrace it. He should keep sparring with the other late night hosts, refuse to pull punches and live dangerously. The people who already love him will admire him for sticking up for himself, and people who have already decided he’s a bad guy won’t be the ones tuning in anyway. Everybody wins!

What do you hope “The Tonight Show” does differently? Let us know in the comments!