You've heard the hype about The Jay Leno Show : It could change the idea of prime-time forever, it could destroy audiences' appetites for David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel or Conan O'Brien an hour-and-a-half later, or it could be the funniest show NBC has launched in years. You can understand Leno wanting to manage expectations. "NBC tried scripted programming at 10 o'clock: Lipstick Jungle, Kidnapped, My Own Worst Enemy, hugely expensive shows," he says. "I thought they were OK, but for some reason, they didn't catch on. So now you try something different."
TVGuide.com spoke to Leno about his "something different" — from the sounds of it, a hybrid of his former Tonight Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Grammys and, er, NASCAR — to see what audiences have in store when the show premieres on Monday (weeknights at 10/9c, NBC). Read on for a primer:
1. How will the new show be similar to Leno's Tonight Show?
Leno has retained some familiar elements. Headlines will recur every Monday, and he'll continue to hit the streets to film new Jaywalking segments. The new theme song was composed by Leno's Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks, who will accompany Leno over at the new digs as well.
2. How will it be different?
With his new, earlier timeslot, tried-and-true comedy bits (like Headlines and Jaywalking) will appear at the end of the show, to give local news broadcasts a strong lead-in, instead of the beginning, where they were used on The Tonight Show to keep people sticking around for the interviews and musical performances.
3. Who else is joining Leno's team?
Leno's one-hour show puts comedy front and center. As such, he'll have a rotating team of correspondents — including D.L. Hughley, Rachael Harris (The Hangover), Duane Perkins, Mikey Day, Liz Feldman, Dan Finnerty and the Dan Band and NBC news anchor Brian Williams — who will appear on the show to introduce their prerecorded segments. "It'll look like America," Leno says of the diverse group. Upcoming topics include Great White Moments in Black History by Perkins, teaching the elderly to Twitter by Feldman, money-saving tips for the recession by Harris and a regular feature about politics by Hughley.
4. Will there be celebrity guests?
There will be, but no desk, just two chairs on a redesigned stage. He hopes the celebs' visits will be more interactive and not just the typical chit-chat. He'd like to incorporate them into comedy bits where possible and to get them to race miniature electric cars around his studio.
5. What's this about racecars?
Leno has teamed up with Ford to construct an indoor track for electric cars on which he'll face off against his celebrity guests. "We'll have in-car cameras as well, so you can hear the celebrity swearing as they hit the wall and stuff; it'll be fun," he says with a chuckle. Drew Barrymore will be the first guest to christen the track on the Sept. 18 show.
6. Are the other networks boycotting Leno's show?
Leno himself may have started this rumor, which he first mentioned at the fall TV previews in August. His first-week bookings are, naturally, pretty A-list: Tom Cruise, Barrymore and Robin Williams, but no TV stars from other networks to speak of — save Miley Cyrus, whose Hannah Montana appears on the ABC-affiliated Disney Channel.
7. Will there be musical guests?
"Music gives you a great studio audience, but it doesn't necessarily give you great TV," Leno says. As a result, there won't be a nightly musical guest. Instead, periodically he'll try to pair or group musicians to create one-of-a-kind performances. First up, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rihanna will team up on the premiere. On Thursday, Sept. 17, Eric Clapton and Bruce Hornsby hit the stage together. Leno also hinted he was looking for musicians to work with Prince on a future show.
8. What's it up against?
Leno will face off against Castle and CSI: Miami on Mondays; The Forgotten and The Good Wife on Tuesdays; Eastwick and CSI: NY on Wednesdays; Private Practice and The Mentalist on Thursdays; and 20/20 and Numbers on Fridays. It's a healthy mix of new and returning shows, but it's fair to say that, except for The Mentalist, none are ratings powerhouses. It's important to note, however, that Leno's show is significantly cheaper to produce than scripted television, hence its potential for greater first-run profits and a lower demand for a specific rating. "We can do three shows in what it cost to blow up the helicopter in the [Trauma] promo," Leno jokes.
9. Will Leno's new show change television history?
If it does, we won't know about it for at least a year. NBC late-night guru Rick Lutwin has said that the Leno show is guaranteed a complete, year-long first season. At that point, he said, they'll look at the longview: the 52-week cumulative rating for the show. "It's a marathon," says NBC president Angela Bromstad. "It's not going to be determined within the first five days of the show." We'll be watching anyway just in case it does.
(Additional reporting by Natalie Abrams)
Will you be watching Leno's new show? (Be sure to check back Tuesday morning for our recap of the premiere.)