Monday, June 1, 2009

Without Letterman, there's no'Brien

Letterman interviews Andy Kaufman on the David Letterman morning show, 1980.
Joaquin Phoenix was watching...

Tonight is all about Tonight. And Conan O'Brien hosting Tonight.

Let it be said that I think Conan will be a huge improvement over Leno. And that Conan can cut it in the earlier slot, and not bring ruin to the Tonight Show franchise. Cheers to Conan!

It's just that when it comes to my late night talk show hosts, I'm brand loyal to one David Letterman: he didn't invent the talk show format, but reinvented it into what it looks like now. Were it not for Letterman, there would be no Conan.

As I watched Leno's farewell to the Tonight Show last week, I was reminded of something that's been forgotten over the years: although Leno was always a better stand-up comic than Letterman (I saw Leno twice in Winnipeg - at the Playhouse and the Concert Hall - and he was great), Leno only started winning the ratings war when he lifted the format, style, and content David Letterman's Late Night and Late Show.

The New York Times' Maureen Dowd noticed as much in 1995:

"Letterman was king for 90 weeks before the dogged Leno pulled ahead by (lamely) aping Letterman bits, nabbing Hugh Grant and jumping on the O. J. case early."

Howard Stern has accused Leno of ripping off Letterman (and himself) for years. Here he calls Leno, "The lamest ass on the planet:"

Here's how New York Magazine sees the battle between Letterman and Leno:
"It felt elaborate social experiment designed to measure, very precisely, some fundamental aspect of the American soul. On one side—Los Angeles, duty, convention, comfort, brightness, professionalism, and the friendly smirk. On the other—New York, rebellion, innovation, elitism, darkness, self-sabotage, and the scowl."
Now what?

Which raises the question: now that Letterman is up against O'Brien, not Leno, will anything change?

My guess is, yeah, it will.

As a guy who has quite possibly seen every Letterman show of all time, including Late Night and the NBC morning show in the early 80s (see above video), I've seen Letterman reinvent himself over and over, from his quintuple bypass recovery and dead serious Sept. 11 tribute to his angry rant against John McCain and now-classic interview with Joaquin Phoenix.

In many ways, O'Brien is, as New York Magazine calls him, a "mini-Letterman;" on his last night with Late Night, he thanked Letterman for “inventing this late-night show” and being “one of the most brilliant broadcasters certainly of the last century and this century and for all of time."

“Living in his (Letterman's) shadow has been a burden and an inspiration for me for years,” he said.

O'Brien's take on Leno? "I owe that man a great deal." Talk about damning with faint praise.

It didn't help O'Brien to have Norm MacDonald appear on his show recently and tell him he'd been "outfoxed again" by Jay Leno. "Your agent's like...remember that discussion we had where you said "I'll never have to fucking follow Leno again?"

With O'Brien doing a young version of his own show, I expect that Letterman will rise to the challenge by doing what he does best:

1. Interviews.

Letterman is the best late-night talk show interviewer there is - he never zones out like O'Brien sometimes does - and he's not afraid to stick it to goofballs like Bill O'Reilly and Spencer Pratt.

As well, when Letterman is interested in a subject, there's no better interview. Witness his recent interviews about the automobile industry with such exciting people as Bob Lutz. No, really.

2. Mining that grouchy temperament.

Letterman is moody and antisocial and doesn't aim to please, as O'Brien does. And he's funny doing it. Embrace the dark side, Dave!

3. Hitting the streets.

Letterman hasn't done as many "man on the streets" of late as he used to. He should.

Dave's a genius at "found comedy" - saying funny things as stuff happens - his hidden camera bits with Rupert Jee are legendary, and every time he talks to "regular folks," magic happens.

4. Being a tastemaker, not a follower.

Letterman should keep up the social commentary and get angry about the things that piss him off. As well, he should continue to do the serious interviews and I predict - as I always have - that he will one day be the host of Face the Nation. I'm only half joking.

5. Appearing on Conan's show and vice versa.

Bury the NBC vs. CBS hatchet. You both have a common enemy now: Jimmy Fallon.

6. Shooting the show in Canada once in awhile.

Conan's come to Canada. How about Dave?

In Dowd's 1995 article, Letterman expresses doubts about his value to an American audience:
"I was never satisfied that I was exactly what this country wanted and needed. What Canada needed maybe -- their expectations are not terribly high."
Couldn't have said it better myself. Dave, Winnipeg beckons.

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