Leno's Challenge: Bringing the Luster Back to 'Tonight' : Television: After the latest round of controversies, the show finds itself at a crossroads. At stake is its longtime dominance in late night.

Nobody ever said it would be easy.

But probably not even Jay Leno, the heir to Johnny Carson as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," could have imagined it would be this tough.

And now comes the hardest part--restoring the luster, the aura, the jewel-like image of late-night TV's most revered franchise to the level that was maintained under Carson.

It is not, thus far, a simple matter of the ratings, which have slipped a bit but have not been bad overall under Leno.

The problem--not entirely the fault of Leno and his entourage--goes deeper. The grand franchise known as "Tonight," under fierce pressure from competitors who smell blood now that Carson is gone, has found itself drawn into uncharacteristic, public dogfights that have somehow smudged its reputation.

Controversy has swirled ever since Leno took over the show last May. There is the ongoing furor over whether David Letterman will leave NBC because he didn't get Carson's job. And other late-night hosts-- Dennis Miller, whose series was recently canceled, and Arsenio Hall--have publicly criticized the competitive tactics of Leno's "Tonight."

This week, "Tonight" found itself immersed in negative publicity again when NBC fired Leno's executive producer and former manager, Helen Kushnick, a close friend of the comedian as he rose to the top.

The week before, Ken Kragen, a well-known talent manager, charged that when he declined to cancel an appearance on Hall's show by one of his clients, country singer Travis Tritt--and deliver him to "Tonight"--Kushnick banned Tritt from the NBC series. Kragen said a scheduled "Tonight" appearance by another client, singer Trisha Yearwood, was also canceled.

Kushnick then went on Howard Stern's nationally syndicated radio show, denying Kragen's account and suggesting that sexism was involved.

At week's end--and with Leno charging that Kushnick's firing was "unwarranted"--this much seems clear: "The Tonight Show" is at a crossroads, a critical turning point in its glorious history. And its greatest challenge will come not from the competition, but from within, as it seeks--after all its imbroglios--to remind viewers that while there are other late-night series, "Tonight" is still the fairest of them all, and the classiest.

That will not be easy. Although viewers have generally remained loyal to "Tonight" during its post-Carson controversies, Hall is a formidable contender, Chevy Chase will join the competition next year on Fox and the universe of cable TV offers a panorama of viewing alternatives to tempt impatient zappers.

But that is where Leno comes in, more than ever before. Throughout the history of "Tonight," which debuted 38 years ago this week, it has been the host--from Steve Allen to Jack Paar to Carson--who has set the course of the series. And now it is up to Leno to take matters much more into his own hands.

It is a risk, because if he doesn't have what it takes to deliver not only jokes, but also that very special aura of panache that "Tonight" has been known for, then the program eventually will fall into the category of just another late-night talk show. Or NBC, to protect its awesomely profitable and distinctive showcase, may simply look for another host.

The tone that Leno sets from now on is even more important than what he has projected thus far. Somehow, on and off camera, he must restore--particularly here in Hollywood--the belief and the image that "Tonight" is confidently and stylishly above the fray, even as it continues to throw its weight around discreetly to woo talent.

TV's fierce war over booking talent is not new; only the naive would believe that it started on "Tonight" during Leno's brief reign. Every challenger to "Tonight" over the years has felt the powerful force of pressure in competing for guests with the potent NBC entry.

Nor is it new for a "Tonight Show" host to face a crisis with NBC. Paar, for instance, had several nifty, well-publicized incidents, once walking out on the show when the network censored a wholly inoffensive "water closet" joke.

In the case of Leno, NBC appears to have initiated a subtle strategy to separate its star from the controversy surrounding the firing of his producer. It may strike some as hard to swallow in leaving the impression that, gosh, he just worked there. In any case, NBC this week expressed "pleasure" with Leno's performance on "Tonight."

Nonetheless, there is much to be desired. But you get the feeling that if Leno would just remember what got him to the party in the first place--that loose, relaxed, brilliantly irreverent style that set him in the first rank of topical comedians--then everything would be OK.

He's been pressing too much as Mr. Nice Guy, and that can get kind of nerdy and whiny pretty fast.

As an interviewer, Leno has never been great, but he's improved a bit. And he'd probably be a lot better if the show, rather than being so overwhelmingly full of political gags and boring, high-profile celebrities, had more of a common touch--more guests from the ordinary world and more jokes about everyday things and situations.

What Leno may have to do most of all is dig down deep into himself and think about what he really is and what he really has to offer--besides the fleeting jokes--that can fill an hour in satisfying and substantial fashion with his own personality.

Allen was, and is, a humorist of phenomenal range. Paar was not only an expert monologuist but also an outrageously spellbinding and witty conversationalist with a sense of dangerous unpredictability. Carson is, simply, the complete comedian, but even more important, he captured the pulse and vibes of America as perhaps no other performer of our lifetime has done.

At the moment, however, "The Tonight Show" doesn't seem as special as it used to be. It is very easy to zap by and forget that it's on.

There is work to be done. An important strength of "Tonight" is that the franchise itself is a star, a setting with a tradition so rich that it can nurture a performer like Leno in spectacular fashion if he is packing something truly original in his baggage.

That's the key. And now we will find out, because he is really on his own.

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