Leno starts updating 'Tonight'

May 27, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Jay Leno has been promising an "all-new 'Tonight Show.' " And, while he hasn't abandoned the desk-and-couch format of Johnny Carson, the show does have a distinctly new look and TC somewhat more contemporary feel.

Visually, the most striking change is not in the new desk, new set or the empty space on the couch where Ed McMahon used to sit. It's literally in the complexion of some of the featured people on the show and the music they play.

In a recent Sun interview, Leno explained the replacement of Doc Severinsen with Branford Marsalis by saying, "Branford Marsalis being black, it gives the show the look of the '90s. . . . It's more representative of the country."

The overly white-male look and sensibility of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" had resulted in horrible ratings the past few years for Carson with women and persons of color.

Leno has to undo that if he wants to survive.

Whereas Severinsen's band consisted of almost all older white men, Marsalis' band is almost all younger persons of color. A woman percussionist is featured. And, while Severinsen aficionados could argue that both Marsalis and Severinsen play jazz, there is a big, big difference between the kinds of jazz being played. Severinsen's roots are in the big bands of the 1940s. Marsalis' jazz is multicultural, with hot Third World rhythms meeting cool improv melodies.

The show's first musical guest Monday night was Shanice, a 19-year-old African-American singer who brought more energy to "The Tonight Show" stage than it's seen in years. And Leno made a point of bringing the singer over after her performance to sit and talk with him and guest Billy Crystal. Carson often did not extend such courtesy to new musical performers.

All of which makes for a welcome and needed change.

But that doesn't mean the show is automatically going to be a hit; there's the matter of Leno himself.

Leno is a compromise replacement for Carson; he's a lot of the old world of TV that Carson comes from and a little of the new world of MTV, Garry Shandling and David Letterman. Some critics have used the terms "classic" to refer to the old world of Carson and "post-modern" for Letterman. Because the mass TV audience today has become split mainly by age between those who like classic (or traditional) shows, such as "Matlock" and "Murder, She Wrote," or post-modern shows, such as "The Simpsons" and "Northern Exposure," it is very hard for the networks to program. The audience for classic shows is larger, but older. The audience for post-modern TV is the demographically desirable one.

NBC didn't want to blow off the older audience, but it had to start getting younger, as well as minority, viewers -- which is why they went with Leno, who can play to young and old. But there's a danger there, of trying to be all things to all people in a multichannel TV world where there are other talk shows that are more demographically focused.

Leno tried to cut it both ways Monday, doing a mostly safe mainstream monologue with lots of Dan Quayle jokes followed by a more cutting-edge "Saturday Night Live" skit satirizing Leona Helmsley and other high-flying felons. My guess is that to be successful, NBC and Leno are going to have to roll the dice and go one way or the other: either have him be the old-style, Las Vegas comedian with every hair in place as a talk show host or be like Letterman, mocking the talk show format as he participates in it.

Leno certainly deserves credit for trying to shake the show out of the lethargy of Carson's last years. But it's going to be a tough uphill climb, with all the changes in TV.

Monday, for example, Leno went live to create some added excitement. But in Baltimore, viewers saw the show on tape, delayed a half-hour by the Oriole game and local news. In the new universe of declining network influence, local affiliates have such pre-emptive prerogatives. In Carson's heyday they did not.

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