“The Jay Leno Show”
Weekdays at 10 p.m.
NBC
2 out of 5 stars

Whenever “The Tonight Show” changes hands, things don’t go smoothly. When Jay Leno took over NBC’s “The Tonight Show” in 1992, a disgruntled David Letterman jumped ship for CBS. Likewise, this spring’s Leno-to-Conan O’Brien “Tonight Show” handover has been dismal for ratings, with Letterman consistently walloping O’Brien.

It’s into this less-than-favorable environment that NBC has launched “The Jay Leno Show,” a nightly talk show that moves Leno’s “Tonight Show” shtick into primetime. The set notwithstanding, Leno on “The Jay Leno Show” is virtually identical to Leno on “The Tonight Show” — a testament to how much NBC wanted Leno to stay with the network.

From the opening minutes (where Leno high-fives the audience before going into his usual monologue), to the return of old segments from “The Tonight Show,” viewers will be hard-pressed to notice much of a difference between this “new” show and the Leno they’re used to.

The show does try to make some minor additions to Leno’s “Tonight Show” formula, adding segments filled by a rotating roster of comedians to the usual interviews and musical performances. Even still, “The Jay Leno Show” retreads familiar territory. This is, for all intents and purposes, “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Again,” and admittedly, NBC didn’t set the bar much higher than that. Giving Leno another show was presumably driven more by the fear of Leno defecting after his contract expired than by any altruism on NBC’s part.

As Monday’s premiere showed repeatedly, watching Leno essentially do the same thing he’s been doing since the early ’90s only underscores Leno’s unambitious middlebrow appeal. An obnoxiously unfunny pre-taped segment early in the show with comedian Dan Finnerty was forgettable enough, with Finnerty singing about a car wash for an excruciatingly long five minutes. And the interview segments didn’t fare much better.

Granted, the sit-down interview is virtually archaic at this point, but it doesn’t play well to Leno’s relative strengths as a host. Leno’s interviewing style has never been especially compelling, lacking the congeniality of Craig Ferguson (“The Late Late Show”) or the curmudgeonly unpredictability of Letterman. Unfortunately, the show’s interview format — which eschews Leno’s traditional desk for a pair of chairs — only emphasizes Leno’s weaknesses.

His opening interview with Jerry Seinfeld, which had the two batting around softball questions before Oprah made a surprise appearance, was lifeless enough to make Jimmy Fallon’s interviews seem dynamic.

Likewise, his interview with Kanye West was cringe-worthy, with Leno making West tear up after asking him how West’s mother — who died in 2007 — would have felt about his outburst at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday. Outside of that, though, the show’s inaugural outing was wholly surprise-free, with pratfalls, jokes about erectile dysfunction and “Headlines” (a “Tonight Show” segment where Leno highlights funny newspaper headlines) padding out the hour.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because Leno’s been doing it for the past 17 years, and he carries it over into “The Jay Leno Show” largely untouched. Leno has always been a comic who delivers, in his own words, “big tent” comedy, and the show is a perfect vehicle for that. Leno, the experienced comedian, delivers jokes that everyone can laugh with at 10 p.m.

But at the same time, the new show’s eagerness to please, along with the fact that it’s essentially a rebranded “Tonight Show,” won’t do much to win Leno many new converts. After all, aiming toward the middle certainly might be comfortable for Leno, but playing it safe all the time tends to get dull after a while.

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