Jay Leno returns to ‘The Tonight Show’

Television Critic

Dick Cheney jokes, George Bush jokes, Cheerios jokes and a “new bit” entitled “How Boring Is Alan Greenspan?”: Jay Leno is back on late-night, looking happier and more self-confident than he has in months. (It takes a confident man to introduce the word “boring,” not to mention Alan Greenspan, five minutes into an opening monologue.)

And why not? As he has made clear through recent self-pitying interviews and the foot-dragging “The Jay Leno Show,” he never wanted to leave “The Tonight Show” in the first place.

“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home,” he murmured in the show’s Wizard of Ozian opening scene Monday night as he lay in black-and-white splendor. Thank heaven for Betty White. “Wow, NBC really did cut your budget. Look at this ratty-assed barn,” she said as she peered in the window.

Of course, when you rely on Betty White saying “ratty-assed” for a laugh -- well, as I think I mentioned, Leno’s back on late-night.

“It’s good to be home,” he repeated expansively as he greeted his audience, and the implication was clear: Conan O’Brien was nothing but a temporary usurper, a cuckoo in Leno’s nest, an evil Prince John to Jay’s King Richard.

Mercifully, Leno moved quickly on to more important subjects. No, not his guests -- Jamie Foxx and Lindsey Vonn -- but his desk. The one concession Leno made to prime time was surrendering the desk and now he needed a new one. So off he went into deepest darkest Burbank, banging on doors and asking startled residents if he could see their desks, put a big fat spider on their keyboards, taunt their tiny, nasty dogs. In one home, Adam Carolla made an appearance -- “Thank you for cooking fish,” he said to the family huddled together on the sofa. In another home it was Randy Jackson.

It was quintessential Leno, man of the people, and after the new desk was unveiled, it did seem as if the last seven months were, if not a dream, then a sort of parallel universe, similar to this season’s “Lost.”

There was Jay doing what he does best, chatting lightly and amiably with Foxx and Vonn, offering congratulations and film clips. Rattling off a list of the week’s guests with palpable pride -- no prime-time blacklists to worry about! -- he showed just the right amount of chagrin over the fact that though the list included Oscar and gold medal winners, the “special appearance” tag was reserved for the cast of “Jersey Shore.”

“This is what I love about television,” he said, shaking his head fondly, and frankly those words seemed the most sincere the man has uttered in a while.

There can be no doubt that Leno is deeply committed to being a late-night host. Although longtime bandleader Kevin Eubanks is leaving, Leno’s got his desk, he’s got his guests and no one expects him to do anything but what he’s done for so many years: protect the “Tonight Show” franchise. After all that has happened, that may or may not be enough. But for right now, Leno clearly believes he is back where he belongs.