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Couch Warfare

Leno may now dominate prime time, but Letterman has triumphed by doing something more interesting: He’s grown up.

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The Rivals: When Letterman guest-hosted Carson’s Tonight Show in 1979, Leno was a guest.  

These are sunny, long-shadowed days in New York City; September is the deceptively glorious season of loss. The city is reborn but perhaps not quite rejuvenated: Our slightly weary-looking mayor is running for a third term, looking not so much like a raffish billionaire as late-issue Mayor Wagner. Our trademarked paragons of wealth and celebrity—Trumps, Hiltons, Diddys—seem either recession-worn or just a little silly. The valiant New York Times, gallant as a Rudyard Kipling regiment, is fighting for its life, waiting for the bugle calls of reinforcements or mini-payments. Wars grind on, the recession spits few gold coins, the one-woman ambition generator named Hillary R. Clinton is exporting her Lucy Van Pelt–like certitude to other nations, her replacement senator a genial mockery of the system. The Yankees are winning, that’s true, with a brutally efficient iteration of the team, but the long summer and the economy have draped gray through the town and even our lovely new mascot president seems careworn and drained.

But up on Broadway and 53rd Street at the Ed Sullivan Theater, a late-middle-aged man is leaping to work each late afternoon. These days, when David Letterman goes to work on his program and the lights go on, he bounds across the stage with the long goofy strides of a Dr. Seuss gazelle. The audience roars, and for one hour a day, the comedian is filled with hemoglobin and the sun shines upon him.

“Well, hi, folks!” he says. “Hello!” And then he snorts a little chuckle of hee-hee-hee in private, self-lacerating conversation with himself.

Four little words and a snort: marinated in history and sensibility, auguring the dread and pleasure that make up the little ongoing narrative of his life, the hour for which he’s paid $32 million a year. In a decade that has seen Tom Brokaw retire and Peter Jennings die, that has seen Carson fade from modern memory, David Letterman might be the last grown-up on network television.

The bad boy of Ball State, Huck Finn grown and weathered, David Letterman has become the national Daddy. He is the ideal dad for the age—not a particularly pristine dad, or full of Cronkitean certitude, but confused and serious and full of conflict, anger, and ambiguity. Letterman is not a fuzzy person; working live he gives off the kind of dangerous electricity of stripped, dangling power lines. But he is a fundamentally serious comedian holding onto the gig of his life—Late Show With David Letterman—the hour in his day that seems to give him purpose. It has never been better.

He has done the old Dave stuff and plenty of it—stupid tricks, top-ten lists, sending dogs off diving boards into a pool on West 53rd Street, hitting fungoes with Mark Teixeira, whacking tennis balls with Andy Roddick, goading guffawing audience members, wheedling a bob-haired, head-bobbing Anna Wintour, doing a nutty tango on marriage with the impressively bonkers Anne Heche, calling out Biff Henderson, accidentally spraying a pregnant lady on the sidewalk by remote-controlled hose, showing blown-up diagrams of the tick-borne disease he contracted in a tree house, indulging Renée Zellweger—but it has been something more.

These ought to be bright, sunny days of sweet victory for Letterman. He has run Late Show on CBS for sixteen years now, making a great deal of money for the network as its franchise player, and suddenly, he has been trouncing Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show on a regular basis.

But on September 14, the game changes once more.

For anyone who cares, it’s the landscape on which two comedy adversaries do some twilight battle as the ancient world of network television fades. In a weird piece of television trigonometry, David Letterman will be taking on not only young Conan O’Brien but also, somewhat tangentially, his old Super Rival, Jay Leno, who—after fifteen years of generally chinning out Letterman at 11:35 p.m.—will be starting his new five-night-a-week strip show on NBC. The Jay Leno Show is a kind of inverted Tonight Show, with celebrity guests—beginning opening night with Jerry Seinfeld—front-ended by Leno’s monologue, with signature features like “Jaywalking” and “Headlines” news clips at the back end of the show. He will have a nightly monologue and also install a racetrack near the studio so that Tom Cruise can race around and break speed records. It will be American entertainment.

The Jay Leno Show is a huge risk for NBC and an epochal statement in the history of network television. Leno will be the first TV talk-show host to have a prime-time hour since Jack Paar did it Friday night at 10 p.m. in the early sixties. It is also a move that many have said augurs the end of prime-time network television as the main stage of American culture. Even if Leno succeeds triumphantly, he will have a difficult time averaging the almost 5 million viewers a night he had at The Tonight Show—compare that with the 40 million that ER once got at 10 p.m. on NBC—and an implicit statement by NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker that broadcast television is G.E.’s glorious old frigate and cable its main business: Zucker suggested that a 1.8 Nielsen among young-adult viewers would be a “home run.” That’s a tenth of what a ten o’clock show used to get on network television when TV was TV.


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