Startlingly disappointing, even to a Letterman fan with low expectations, the new Leno show, the first five-night-a-week prime-time broadcast show in TV history, seems little more than a warmed over (and not even as good) version of The Tonight Show, with a set augmented by some spare parts from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Leno was asked this summer how he felt being called upon to save NBC, which is basically dying in prime time. "Screw them," he said.
And it seems so far that he's trying to do just that. Documentarian Michael Moore was the best guest they could get for the second show, and then they make him sing "The Times They Are a-Changin' " - two verses worth. Fortunately, in many neighborhoods, the sound of TVs turning off drowned out the cacophony.
Guest-comic bits from the Dan Band and Jim Norton were rarely funny and went on interminably. Tom Cruise, who's lucky if he can string together 20 words of his own, was a big star Tuesday, sitting alongside Cameron Diaz, a perennial talk-show-host live wire who was reduced to a sputtering short circuit by lame Leno questions in an unfunny format called "10 at 10." The Cruise visit was highly hyped, but viewers didn't find out until show time that he'd only be around via satellite.
Leno brought The Inquirer in, citing a two-week-old story (making it sound new) about the PennDot people who ensure vanity license plates don't get too risqué, and then making jokes about the Pennsylvania towns of Intercourse and Blue Ball that Philadelphia kids stopped laughing at before junior high.
Leno has decided the loser Detroit Lions are funny, and the Eagles, too: After Donovan McNabb's injury, "Michael Vick offered to put down McNabb for free."
Leno makes it easy to put down his new show, which lacks a shred of originality (We're supposed to get excited about the interview chairs?). He seems thoroughly bored. Has he always been so awkward checking the TelePrompter to keep up with his jokes? Or maybe he's just wincing at how bad they are.
First guest Jerry Seinfeld had the funniest moment of the first two nights, referring to all the hoopla when Leno turned The Tonight Show over to Conan O'Brien last spring: "You know in the '90s, when we quit a show, we actually left."
Judging from the early form of his "new" show, Leno seems to wish he had.
Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.