Back running NBC’s Tonight Show, Jay Leno couldn’t have been happier if he were a boy reunited with his dog. Or maybe a dog reunited with his boy. He bounced and bounded onto the stage.
“It’s good to be home,” he said Monday night. “I’m Jay Leno, your host – at least for a while.” Then he launched into a string of jokes on the Olympics, Alan Greenspan, NBC, airlines, Cheerios, Dick Cheney’s heart, The Bachelor, tight pants, Tiger Woods, everything under the moon. He said to band leader Kevin Eubanks: “Isn’t 11:30 a lot more fun?”
Certainly more fun than 10 p.m.: The short-lived Jay Leno Show reduced NBC’s last hour in prime time to a long, wide supermarket aisle selling nothing but Leno.
Monday’s hour started with a predictable joke: a sepia-toned riff on the last scene of The Wizard of Oz, with Leno as Dorothy back home in the safety of Kansas. Dear old Betty White was brought in for a cameo and to drop an inoffensive swear word.
Well, Mr. Leno, if you say so. Everyone knows that the Tonight Show is the Technicolor Oz, the dream destination. A lot of flying monkeys were shot down from the sky before you could return.
Jamie Foxx was Leno’s inaugural guest, and he was annoying. He whooped and clapped and sang and took a swig of champagne. If Conan O’Brien had been buried under the stage, perhaps he might have stomped on his grave, too. Foxx could have held it in, a little.
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At any rate, Leno knows how to do this show, and he did it, and he’ll continue to do it. I much prefer CBS’s David Letterman – his first guest last night was the very strange Bill Murray, showing off surgical puncture wounds in his knee. But my guess is that audiences will gravitate back to Leno, now that O’Brien’s gone. They can now choose between two avuncular figures. One chuckles dependably, if routinely, through ups and downs. The other cackles and occasionally spits acid.