For ‘Leno’ Debut, More Drama Than Expected

Kanye West may have said on Monday night that he owes Taylor Swift a more personal apology, but Jay Leno owes Mr. West a vast debt of gratitude. Mr. West’s solipsistic but touchingly unpolished mea culpa gave the premiere of “The Jay Leno Show” a serendipitous and very helpful boost. Advance booking, not last-minute lobbying, brought Mr. West to Mr. Leno’s new set. Mr. West’s timely star turn — an apology for his outburst on Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards — was a lucky fluke, so the first show didn’t really give viewers a chance to judge NBC’s 10 p.m. experiment: the much ballyhooed shift in prime-time programming that Time magazine predicted could determine “the future of television.” The future of “The Jay Leno Show” is likely to look almost exactly like “The Tonight Show” past.

Mr. West’s apology didn’t fit NBC’s definition of the Leno hour as a refreshing infusion of stand-up comedy into the bathos of 10 p.m. network dramas and detective shows. If anything, the premiere out-Oprahed “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and not because of the short pretaped cameo Ms. Winfrey made as a joke during Jerry Seinfeld’s segment.

After Mr. West delivered a convoluted explanation for interrupting Ms. Swift’s acceptance speech that ended succinctly, “It was rude, period,” Mr. Leno leaned into his guest and squeezed him for a little more remorse. Invoking the singer’s mother, who died of complications after cosmetic surgery in 2007, Mr. Leno took on the lugubrious tone of Dr. Phil to ask, “What do you think she would have said about this?”

Mr. West choked up and seemed unable to answer, and instead covered his face as if in tears. He did recover in time to join his fellow guests Jay-Z and Rihanna in performing “Run This Town.”

And Mr. Leno ended his maiden show the way he started it, in his familiar silly and safe “Tonight” mode. So much attention — and promotion — has been spent deciphering the impact Mr. Leno’s 10 p.m. slot could have on prime-time programming, and so much ink has been devoted to describing how Mr. Leno’s new show would depart from his old one, that it was startling to see how little difference there was.

The set was simpler, and Mr. Leno spoke with his guests in matching armchairs, not across a desk, but the content and tone of the premiere looked and sounded like any ordinary “Tonight” show.

There were monologue jokes about Dick Cheney, Wal-Mart and the Detroit Lions; antic pre-taped skits; the reading of goofy newspaper headlines; and a surprisingly understated interview with his official first guest, Mr. Seinfeld. The two comedians, longtime friends, chatted amiably as they discussed Mr. Seinfeld’s 10 years of marriage and his plans to stage a “Seinfeld” reunion that will be part of the new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO.

Mr. Seinfeld couldn’t resist tweaking his host about the fanfare over his return to NBC after a three-month hiatus.

“You know,” Mr. Seinfeld said slyly, “in the ’90s, when we quit a show, we actually left


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