[And here we have Part Three of Three: The third part of Evanier's article about Jay Leno, David Letterman and late night TV talk
shows. Where did we leave off? Oh, yeah...Carson just quit.]
Finally, after years of missing that big break, Jay Leno was in the right place at the right time: He was Johnny Carson's permanent
guest host when the moment came to find Carson's replacement. There are those who think Dave "deserved" the slot. I'm sorry; that's not how TV
works. No one gets any job — let alone one of the most important in TV — because they "deserve" it. They get it because
someone thinks they'll do the best job (i.e., attract the largest audience).
No one in the television industry — except maybe D. Letterman — was shocked that Leno got the nod; Jay is young,
hard-working and notably qualified to inherit the assignment of that daily, topical monologue. Like most good male talk show hosts, he is
someone women do not find unattractive...and, from his almost-constant stints "on the road," he has a good sense of America beyond the boundaries of
Hollywood and New York.
And Leno was more than a guest host. He was there once a week, sometimes more. He did whole weeks and he did the
prestigious New Years Eve Tonight Show. He'd already brought in his own director and assembled his own staff of writers for his guest
host stints. There was talk of him having his own Musical Director in lieu of Doc Severinsen, and perhaps Phil Hartman as his sidekick.
Most important: He had shown he could keep the numbers up and deliver the same ratings in that time slot as the great Carson. If
Dave Letterman was surprised that Leno had a lock on The Tonight Show, he must have been in an advanced state of Denial. Everyone else
Still, that is a basic premise of Late Shift, a book by journalist Bill Carter. It is a fine, fascinating volume —
certainly a "must-read" for anyone interested in the subject matter, certainly accurate most of the time. But I was around a lot of the
Leno/Letterman tumult and had close friends in the midst of it (On the CompuServe electronic bulletin board, I announced that someone named Conan
O'Brien would inherit Letterman's time slot, two weeks before NBC mentioned the name in public). A few of Mr. Carter's conclusions do not match
I believe, for example, that the choice of Leno over Letterman for the job was a logical one, wholly in keeping with all the
traditional, fallible ways that decisions are made in television. In light of Letterman's incredible ratings when he moved into the 11:30 slot
on CBS — and because we all love a tale of folks in High Corporate Jobs making knuckleheaded mistakes — I think there has been the
tendency to exaggerate the error of NBC choosing Jay over Dave. It was, at the time, the safe and sane choice.
Which is not to say that it was the right one; I don't know. Those weeks when Letterman on CBS is a full Nielsen point ahead of
NBC, it may seem to have been wrong, but I'm not prepared to say that, either — not considering how many tens of millions of bucks NBC will
make this year off the supposedly "wrong" decision. To me, a really stupid decision is one where you lose money. The Leno Tonight
Show is still one of the most profitable franchises in all of television.
Besides, no one can say what a Letterman Tonight Show would have been like — especially if, as suggested, he'd switched
coasts, employed a largely-new staff and done it out of Burbank. (It's hard to imagine him doing a better show than he is doing out of the Ed
Sullivan Theatre in New York.)
Just about everyone, everywhere believed Jay would fare better than Dave in that slot. (Let us remember that even CBS only went
after Letterman for 11:30 after they failed to land Leno for the job.) When Dave started to achieve unprecedented, unpredicted ratings opposite
Tonight, the inevitable band of experts emerged to say, "Well, I always believed Letterman should have gotten the job." I think Carter gives
too much dignity to folks who only said that out loud after the ratings came in. I also think he holds two men — John Agoglia and Warren
Littlefield — too personally responsible for decisions made by a much larger group.
Furthermore, I believe the book makes too much of a period when Letterman was ready to ankle NBC for CBS and Leno was left to "twist in
the wind" while the Peacock Network publicly mulled dumping him for Dave. If you want to find a boneheaded move on the part of NBC, look no
further than their willingness to keep that charade going for even five minutes; to publicly devalue their star by telling America, "We picked Jay
but we're going to take a few weeks to decide if maybe Dave wouldn't be better." No wonder America rushed to sample Letterman when he finally
did get into that time slot...on CBS.
But there was no other way it could have come down: NBC had to keep Leno. And through it all, I was again impressed with how he
handled things, especially when he attempted to disabuse reporters of the idea that this was a news item of world-shattering import. "Look," he
said, "there are people starving...countries with famine and war...those are real concerns. Here, no matter what happens, no matter how they
decide, we all go home as millionaires."
The initial choice of Jay over Dave may have been the wrong one but, by the time this discussion rolled around, it was too late.
I can't believe they would have made the change that so much of Late Shift treats as a serious consideration.
Think of it: Jay, whose rep as a Good Guy is spotless, inherits the show he guest-hosted for so many years, and racks up ratings that
are well in the "success" category by any measure. Then Dave — whose rep, deserved or not, is sarcastic and snide — decides he
always wanted to grow up to be Johnny Carson so he gets NBC to fire Jay and give him the job. How do you think that would have played with the
I'll tell you: Imagine a People cover with Jay, smiling and secure, about to start his new CBS show opposite The Tonight Show
With David Letterman and a cover blurb saying how all of Hollywood is rooting for Jay to get his revenge against those who sacked him because
Dave threw a tantrum. Imagine Hard Copy stories, dredging up all the Letterman quotes about Jay helping him out when he started...quotes
from others about what a nice guy Jay is and how he was doing fine on Tonight...yet his back-stabbing "friend" Dave got those "weasels" at NBC
to fire him. Imagine the first time Dave has Howard Stern on and Howard asks him, "So, Dave, how did it feel to get one of the nicest guys in
this business fired because you had some childhood fantasy of being Johnny Carson?" I don't think Dave would have been very funny with Leno's
blood on his hands. He certainly could never again have insulted a single NBC exec; not after pressing them into doing such major weaseling on
If NBC had replaced Jay with Dave, 80% of America would have been rooting for Jay to go on CBS and kick Letterman's butt back to
Indiana. And to throw in a few kicks for the weasels at NBC, as well.
But it never would have happened. David Letterman is way too smart to have allowed it to happen. And he had way too good a show
in Late Night to risk dumping it all, moving to Burbank and working with a new staff to do a show that, because of its heritage, would have to
be somewhat different.
No, I think the whole "will NBC dump Jay for Dave?" period was not, as Late Shift holds, about that. I think it was about
Dave and his agents holding NBC's feet to the fire, seeing just what they might offer him in apology for some rudeness and bad judgment in handling
the Johnny/Jay transition (and, at the same time, driving up the size of the CBS offer). And I think it was about NBC tap-dancing, using a
possible Tonight offer to stall as they tried to come up with something to offer Dave to keep him off the competition. Carter reports
that NBC finally offered Tonight to Dave but that deal was never negotiated. My guess — endorsed by a chum at Dave's agents'
offices — is that, if and when it was put on paper, the tiny print would have allowed them to delay giving the show to Dave until such time as
Leno's ratings fell below an acceptable level...which they still haven't, even with Letterman on CBS.
That is what is so amazing about what happened here: Jay Leno is in the bizarre position of being a Big Hit who looks to many like a
failure, just because someone else is a Bigger Hit.
Johnny Carson has no greater fan than me. Even with the hoary sketches and the strange concept that you bring your audience
contemporary music by booking Barry Manilow, Carson was the Master, right down to his last night. And he achieved something that Letterman and
Leno never will: He turned late-night TV from a fringe programming area into a major arena. Carson kept his standards high for three decades in
a business where six years is considered Permanent Employment.
Leno's mission was to follow The Legend and to approximate Carson's ratings but in younger viewers. This, he has achieved since
Achieving that was impressive back when he had Letterman as his lead-out, not opposite him. It is incredible that he is
maintaining those numbers with Letterman as competitor.
Letterman on CBS is a juggernaut. Before his new show started, his biggest boosters were figuring him to get a 3 rating with Leno
probably at 4. Leno has hovered around a 4, sometimes reaching a 5...but no one figured that the late night audience could expand to the point
where Letterman would get a 6 rating, as has been the norm. (If anyone tells you they predicted this, ask them to show you that they put it on
paper before Dave went on the air and had it notarized. Otherwise, don't believe them.)
For months, when reporters asked Jay how he felt about Dave coming on opposite him, he said, "I think it'll be good for the world of
late-night TV...get some attention to it, cause more folks to stay up late." I thought that was just a simple, diplomatic thing to say about
competition you can live without. But — I should have known — Jay was right.
His reward for being right? A multi-year contract to keep hosting one of TV's most important shows at seven million a year.
And, having been renewed and, therefore, freed of cancellation worries, he now has a good shot at finding himself and exorcising the last of the
spirits of Carson. It wouldn't surprise me if he started tying or even beating Letterman shortly, but it also wouldn't surprise me if he had a
long, happy run in second place.
Late Shift makes the guy seem like a loser and quotes Letterman's producer as saying Leno will never get any better. In
the context that he said it — lobbying for Dave to get Jay's job — it's understandable that someone should say such a thing but to me,
Leno's already disproven it. Slowly but certainly, the show is improving. You can almost feel Jay moving out from under the dark clouds
of having to follow The Great Carson, triumphing over what must have been hellish times. No sooner had he undergone a painful separation with
his long-time manager than NBC launched their very-public flirtation with Dave at Jay's expense, followed by the ratings lead and press turning on
Leno...and groundless personal attacks by former competitors Arsenio Hall and Dennis Miller. All of this neatly coincided with the death of
both of Jay's parents, some months apart. Somehow, night after night, Robo-Comic was out there doing his show. My aforementioned friend
who knows Dave well says, "I prefer Dave's shows to Jay's...but I think Leno deserves an Emmy for doing a show under that kind of stress. A lot
of guys couldn't even have made it to the studio, let alone done a show every night."
This is where I think the Carter book — possibly because it went to press too early — misses. It paints Leno as a
loser in a "war" that exists only because Hard Copy says it exists. (And call me crazy but I have trouble seeing a guy who takes home
more than seven million bucks a year as a "loser." Give me some of those losses, please.)
Yes, you can view it all as a "war" and crown the guy with the higher numbers as champ. Or you can take the tack that both are
successful and that, given what it took Jay to get to this stage — in terms of talent, integrity and effort — his is the more exciting
success story. Given the Leno philosophy of not worrying about the other guy's success, only your own, the latter seems more appropriate to
If I have not dwelled in this piece about how much I also like and admire David Letterman, it's because so many others have and because
I find Leno and his situation more interesting.
As a viewer, I have honestly no idea which I prefer — Dave or Jay. Dave's show is more polished, his screen identity fully
realized, as it should be, given his eleven-year head start. And the man is brilliant when a guest is exuding Attitude or things have collapsed
and the host has to build something funny out of the rubble. On the other hand, there's a certain fascination with watching Jay learning on the
job. He's been wise enough to perfect what is there, however long it takes, and to avoid Panic Changes. Panic Changes are a great way to
turn a Close Second into a Distant Third.
Dave has a repertory of tried-and-tested bits. On the other hand, I could do without the eightieth appearance of some of them,
like Dave trying to converse with someone who hasn't fully learned English as a Second Language. ay has a monologue that, each night,
represents countless man-hours of state-of-the-art joke writing. Still, I could do without the forced attempts at a "relationship" with his
Neither show, to me, is spontaneous in the sense that Steve Allen's were when he founded the form. No comedy bits count on the
host's ability to be funny; way too much is pre-scripted and, often, pre-taped. Every talk show in history has sent its host into the audience
to interview folks. With "Brush With Greatness," Letterman turned even that into a scripted bit by having his writers cook up extreme punch
lines for the audience members to read off cards.
Neither host is participatory enough. Jay recently had on a man who could balance a seated person on his head.
Significantly, the guy did not balance Jay up there. They brought on Steve Allen (age 73) to take the physical risk and be funny. Dave,
meanwhile, rarely leaves his desk; when he does, it's usually for a cooking demonstration — an odd ritual of all talk shows in which one of the
world's great chefs is brought on to show what he or she can whip up in three minutes on a hot plate with a comedian chopping their vegetables.
Dave acts annoyed with the whole spot throughout, as if the guest is there against his wishes, then won't even taste the final product. They
bring Paul over from the band for that. What happened to the days when talk show hosts participated in their own programs? Steve and
Johnny used to eat all the bark and berries that Euell Gibbons or Gypsy Boots brought on for them to sample and if they didn't like it...well, that
was funny. And real.
But both shows are, despite these quibbles, marvelously entertaining. I don't know which one I prefer...and you know what's
great? I don't have to decide. Through the modern-day wonder of the Video Tape Recorder, we can all watch one and tape the other —
which is what I do. Many nights, I tape both and watch Ted Koppel. In "The Great Late-Night Wars," I figure I'm a double-winner: I get to
watch Leno and Letterman.
What could be better? Well, if Carson were still on...
One last observation. In that column I wrote on Carson, I told of how, when I was anywhere near NBC around 5:30 (taping time), I
would sneak into Carson's studio, stand in a little area behind the producer and savor at least the opening, live. The NBC Orchestra (as they
called Doc Severinsen's band) was incredible to hear in person. And Carson's entry through those parti-colored curtains was darn near the only
time, in my admittedly limited years in Show Biz, that I've stood on a stage and felt I was seeing Magic occur before me.
I waited until Jay had been in the job a few months but I couldn't resist. I had to go stand in the wings for a taping and see
what it was like, compared to when Johnny was there.
I wandered over there one afternoon...greeted a few of Jay's writers whom I knew...said a fast howdy to Jay, who was coming off-stage
from doing his own warm-up (probably as much for his benefit as the audience's) and then heard the "new" NBC Orchestra go at it. The new band
is younger, smaller and more of a racial and gender mix, but just as exciting in its own way. And when they segued seamlessly from a warm-up
number to the show's new theme song and Leno entered, just like Johnny used to...well, I felt the Magic again. It wasn't as big or as
pronounced, for Leno is too new to carry any sense of history through those curtains and, what the heck, we all had seen him just six minutes
before. But it was Magic, no doubt about it, like a young expert who has practiced all his life to pluck doves out of thin air and finally has
the chance to show everyone how it's done.
I have no doubt that, given enough time, he'll be making elephants appear.