It's not like Jay Leno hasn't done a public tightrope act before. The night he took over from Johnny Carson, his performance was scrutinized for how much folks laughed. Now, on Monday night, he'll be watched not only for that, but also for how this new idea – topical comedy in prime time – works.
So what exactly is the former "Tonight Show" host going to do with his new, 10 p.m. program? The secrecy surrounding the talk show before its debut might teach the Pentagon a trick or two about security. But some elements are now clear:
•One guest per night. The hour will feature one person instead of the multiple names who share the couch on standard, late-night talk shows. Graciously helping to launch his fellow comedian into unknown waters is Jerry Seinfeld on Monday night. Tuesday night's guest is Michael Moore, whose new documentary, "Capitalism, A Love Story," opens soon.
•No desk (reportedly). Leno, a lifetime motorcycle and car aficionado, will take that energy onto the stage, eliminating the seat-at-the-desk setup – a fixture on most talk shows.
•Green competition among guests. If this evokes a huh?, here's more: NBC built a special track just outside the show's soundstage on which the show's guests will be asked to compete in so-called "green" vehicles to see who is the fastest, toughest or just plain greenest.
•Fewer musical acts. "What audiences want in these shows is laughs," says Rick Ludwin, executive vice president of late-night and prime-time series for NBC. But there will still be some musical acts, Leno says. Singer-songwriter Kanye West , for instance, will appear Monday night. Then again, after the dust-up over Mr. West's appearance at Sunday night's Video Music Awards, Leno may find that chat time with the music star gets higher ratings than his scheduled performance with Rihanna and Jay-Z.
•With the shift to prime time, a shift in tone. This is one of the biggest adjustments the show must make. The second half of the old "Tonight Show" format was lower key, with lower-profile guests. "When I was doing 'The Tonight Show,' you sort of front-loaded the show," Leno says. "You'd have all your comedy from 11:35 to 12," he adds. This new venture, on the other hand, must end with the kind of energy and interest that will keep viewers tuned in to watch the local news at 11 p.m. So the second half will have familiar bits from his old show, such as "Jaywalking," in which the host randomly tests the civic knowledge of folks on the street. This will join other comic stunts and on-location comedic skits as well as reported bits from an impressive roster of comedians, including (who knew?) NBC News anchor Brian Williams.
Hollywood insiders aren't the only ones paying close attention to the show's performance. Affiliate TV stations, for which the 11 p.m. news block is an important source of advertising income, are watching this experiment with apprehension. Earlier this year, in fact, the affiliate station in Boston made noises about not airing the new show, until network officials stepped in.
The rise of political humor
Comedy ripped from the headlines is the lingua franca of American humor. But is it making us more sophisticated or superficial? Click here to read about it.
Follow us on Twitter.