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Leno faces new pressures with return to old time slot

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Leno back on late night
  • Jay Leno gave up "Tonight" chair last year for prime-time venture that fizzled
  • Conan O'Brien took over as host but had to give up role to make room for Leno's return
  • Big question: Can Leno lure back viewers who've formed new habits?
  • Monday's guests include Jamie Foxx, skier Lindsey Vonn, singer Brad Paisley

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- Talk show host Jay Leno returned Monday night to his old time slot as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," nine months after he ceded the spot to Conan O'Brien in a failed move to primetime.

"It's good to be home. I'm Jay Leno your host -- at least for a while," Leno said to open Monday's show, according to a transcript of the taping released in advance of the broadcast.

Leno's return comes after the ratings tanked for O'Brien's and Leno's shows. That led to a highly publicized shakeup that pitted Leno against O'Brien, who wound up leaving the network after being forced out of his time slot to make room for Leno's return.

Leno made no mention of O'Brien in his opening monologue, according to the transcript, and only briefly touched on the shakeup before launching into his comedic commentary on current events including the Olympics and the Tiger Woods scandal.

"I've got to admit that I'm a little nervous -- not because it's my first night back (but) because I know that Dave and Oprah are watching," he said in reference to a surprise Super Bowl commercial featuring Leno, Oprah Winfrey and late-night rival David Letterman.

Leno's performance will be scrutinized by his bosses at NBC, which has been enjoying high ratings from its broadcast of the Olympic Games in Canada, predicted media critic Andrew Wallenstein. "The success of the Olympics certainly puts additional pressure on Leno to win the gold in terms of late-night ratings," he told CNN.

Leno has to win back the audience that helped him stay on top for more than a decade, many of whom have migrated across the dial to Letterman's "Late Show," Wallenstein said.

Marquee blog: Leno's monologue

"So many of his viewers who were conditioned to watch him at 11:30 may have gone on and found new viewing habits," Wallenstein said. "This will be the test."

Leno's ability to repair his battered image also will be tested. He found himself on the receiving end of jokes during the NBC debacle, with comedians taking shots.

"Jay is like whack-a-mole," Letterman said on his program January 22. "You think you've canceled him, and he pops up on another time period."

The jabs appear to have landed hard. In an appearance January 28 on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Leno was asked if he felt he had been portrayed unfairly by the media.

"Yeah, I think it's a little unfair, and I'm going to work hard to try and rehabilitate that image," he responded.

He'll get some help. Leno's first week's guest lineup includes the usual mix of celebrity actors, athletes, musicians and a politician.

Monday's guests included Jamie Foxx and Olympic gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn, with a musical performance by Brad Paisley; Tuesday's include former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Olympic gold medal snowboarder Shaun White, with a musical performance by Adam Lambert, according to the NBC Web site.

Letterman's bookers have not been sitting on their hands: his guests this week include comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Murray, journalists Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters, and actors Tom Hanks and Matt Damon.

Video: Stern: Leno 'lapdog,' 'thief'

Leno got support Friday from attendees at the NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles. "People really love him for who he is," said actor Tatyana Ali. "He's a good person; he's hilarious."

"I love Jay," said Sherri Shepherd, co-host of "The View." "He's just yummy. You have so many memories of Jay; he's just a good guy."

But actor Kim Coles said the drama over his show has had a toll on her viewing habits.

"I switch on to CBS because there's no drama going on over there," she said. "I know what I'm going to get. I'm going to get 'Stupid Pet Tricks;' I'm going to get Dave being snarky. I know what I'm getting. At NBC, I don't know what I'm getting over there."

Still, Corey Reynolds predicted Leno's return would prove successful if he falls back on his strengths.

"Jay's only got to do one thing -- be funny," said the actor in "The Closer." "Conan's going to come out fine; Jay's going to come out fine. NBC might kind of be the big loser in it all, but Jay's going to be funny because Jay is a funny guy."

CNN's Kareen Wynter contributed to this story.