Jay Leno was absent from the nation's TV screens for little more than three weeks, but he's returning Monday night with renewed purpose.
Leno will be reclaiming his old job at NBC's "Tonight Show" just nine months after giving it up to Conan O'Brien, and only 19 days after NBC pulled the plug on Leno's own prime-time misadventure.
Now the late-night war resumes between Leno and his longtime CBS opponent David Letterman, who gained the ratings upper hand during O'Brien's brief, unhappy stay as "Tonight Show" host.
NBC is praying that Leno will settle comfortably back into his "Tonight Show" desk chair, where he ruled late night (and beat Letterman) for much of 17 years.
But already handicappers are weighing whether Leno can recapture his momentum after leaving last May in favor of O'Brien, and after stumbling badly in his weeknight prime-time hour, yanked last month by NBC.
Meanwhile, rumors abound concerning the next step for O'Brien, widely seen as victimized by Leno and by NBC's ham-handed shakeup. The most popular theory places him on the Fox network, butting heads nightly with Letterman and Leno.
With NBC's much-watched blanket coverage of the Winter Olympics now just a memory, the battered, often-ridiculed network desperately needs something new to brag about. A successful trip back to the future with Leno hosting "Tonight" might qualify.
Leno's scheduled guests tonight are Jamie Foxx, Olympic gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn and singer-songwriter Brad Paisley. Letterman is countering with Bill Murray and rap star Ludacris.
"The Tonight Show" and "Late Show with David Letterman" air at 11:35 p.m. Eastern time.
By Frazier Moore