One of the peculiarities of the Nielsen ratings is that Jay Leno’s Tonight Show crushes David Letterman’s Late Show and has ever since that glorious moment in 1995 when Letterman was out in front. Late Show fans tend to blame this on large swaths of senior citizens who, they say, eschew Letterman’s crabbiness for Leno’s reassuring schmaltz. But this premise is deeply flawed. For one thing, Leno cleans up with TV’s hip demographic, the 18-to-49-year-olds; he claims his nightly margin of victory is 44 percent. For another, anyone desiring a dose of late-night schmaltz knows there’s only one host to turn to these days, and that’s David Letterman.
The New Dave—munificent, beatific, warm—has little in common with the crank who hosted NBC’s Late Night from 1982to 1993. A few weeks ago, for example, Letterman offered a warm tribute to the actor Tony Randall, who had died at age 84. Dave declared: “I was lucky enough to know Tony as an actor and friend. … He always made us better for having worked with him. We will miss him very much.”On the show,a montage of Randall’s best Late Show clips played over “Forever Young.” You kept waiting for Letterman to crack wise, to remind the audience that Randall’s role on Late Show was often to play Dave’s stooge. But there wasn’t a nudge—even a gentle one—all night.
Dave has staged similar wakes for Warren Zevon, the singer-songwriter, and George Miller, the comedian. Six days after Sept. 11, Letterman emerged as the nation’s unofficial grief counselor, at one point holding the hand of misty-eyed guest Dan Rather. For the man who once napalmed NBC executives and tossed watermelons out of windows, this newfound gentility is a revelation. It’s also rather sad. It means Letterman has decided that the only way to compete in the late-night war is to be a fountain of sweetness and earnestness, to devote himself to the happiness of his network and audience—to be, in other words, just like Jay Leno.
In fairness, Dave’s “dark” period—his stint on NBCand his first year or two on CBS—isn’t quite as dark as it’s cracked up to be. If you watch Late Night reruns on the Trio cable network, you’ll find Dave peddling a pretty mild brand of antiestablishment comedy. (The show seemed naughtier because it ran after Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, the sine qua non of establishment television.) But he did bring newfound anger to late night. Dave lampooned his least favorite NBC executives as “GE Employees of the Week.” He had rude encounters with guests, mocking Shirley MacLaine’s new-age gauziness and Cher’s egomania. That orneriness—matched against Leno’s relentless politicking—prevented Dave from landing Tonight when Carson abdicated in 1992.
When Letterman jumped to CBS the following year, the move was hailed as a triumph for edgy, ironic comedy—finally, something worth watching at 11:30 p.m. According to Bill Carter’s The Late Shift, Letterman worked hard to create a hybrid act for the earlier hour: not quite as nasty as his Late Night persona nor as saccharine as Leno and Arsenio Hall. The initial ratings seemed to bear Dave out. Even with lower clearance levels—the number of CBS affiliates that ran Late Show in its ideal time slot—Letterman trounced Leno in the ratings for nearly two years. Tonight seemed shallow, unhip. Back at NBC, things became so awkward that Jack Welch had to apologize at a company meeting for backing the wrong host.
Then, on July 10, 1995, Leno landed an interview with Hugh Grant, fresh off his prostitution fiasco, and Tonight beat Late Show in the ratings and never really looked back. When quizzed about the sudden reversal, Letterman producers point to CBS’s lackluster prime-time schedule, which they claim doesn’t feed Late Show enough viewers. Never mind that CBS had ratings juggernauts Survivor, CSI, and Everybody Loves Raymond last season, and Dave still got creamed.
A more convincing explanation is that Dave’s show—because of his heart surgery, his age, his new baby, whatever—has become a syrupy facsimile of Leno’s. Guests trot on to plug their latest projects. Mild comedy follows the monologue. Given Tonight’s inherent advantages—the franchise name, the vestigial shadow of Carson—it takes an extraordinarily heartwarming event for Letterman just to make a dent in the ratings. Indeed, Dave’s few victories usually involve one of his comebacks from a gruesome surgery. After his quintuple bypass in2000, Dave made a gallant return five weeks later, choking back tears as he introduced his team of doctors. The episode beat Tonight in the ratings and went on to become one of Dave’s highest-rated shows ever.Last spring, Letterman sat on the bench for five weeks while recovering from the shingles, and when he returned, interest spiked again. But within days, viewers had fled back to the Tonight Show.
Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett has said, “Clearly, Dave is the more culturally relevant of the two.” This is undoubtedly true. Old Dave inspired TV’s withering ironists: Jon Stewart on politics, Dave Chappelle on race, Conan O’Brien on nerd culture. Yet it’s no coincidence that Letterman’s heirs are confined to the outer boroughs of television—cable or late-late-night—just as Dave was in his glory days. What hope is there for black comedy on TV when the dark prince is peddling glee?