Let me make this clear: I have never hosted a talk show. Does this make me less qualified to judge talk-show hosts than, say, in alphabetical order, Tyra Banks, Carson Daly, Tony Danza, Zach Galifianakis, Tom Green, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Magic Johnson, Sharon Osbourne, Jerry Springer or Steve Wilkos?
But this historic Letterman-O'Brien showdown -- the brutal Fight for Late Night -- cannot be ignored. CBS chief Nina Tassler couldn't help gloating that "Late Show With David Letterman" is closing the ratings gap with "The Tonight Show." Remember in June, a week after Conan O'Brien's "Tonight" debut, when NBC formally announced that he was "the new king of late night"?
"It seemed a little bit premature," Tassler said with a laugh during a meeting with critics last week. Even NBC's late-night boss, Rick Ludwin, had to agree.
The strange thing is that David Letterman and Conan O'Brien have so much in common. It's disturbing, really.
They're both brilliant and bizarre, with more than a dash of smugness. They both talk about their hair considerably more than most American men talk about their hair.
They both tower over their petite, lollipop-headed Hollywood guests. They're both late bloomers, marriagewise. They both started as TV writers -- Letterman for "Good Times," O'Brien for "The Simpsons."
They've even both had famous stalkers. Margaret Ray repeatedly broke into Letterman's home, stole his Porsche and camped out on his tennis courts. She committed suicide in 1998. Conan's stalker, a Roman Catholic priest, was arrested in 2008 when he tried to enter a taping.
In many ways, they are cut from the same comedic cloth. But beyond that, we can make some important distinctions.
There are many numbers involved, but it comes down to this: Letterman is earning the most total viewers, while O'Brien wins among the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic. But here's my problem with demographics: I'm not an advertiser, so I don't care.
All right, yes, Letterman's guests skew older. I was forced to admit this while watching Dave discuss severe sleep apnea with Regis Philbin. That's not a topic that Conan needs to raise with Ashton Kutcher or the Jonas Brothers.
But Letterman has a knack for buzzworthy guests who get talked about for days. Paul McCartney performing on the Ed Sullivan Theater marquee for a crowd of 4,000? That won't be forgotten anytime soon.
TelePrompTer vs. cue cards
Conan, like our new president, is a TelePrompTer man. During his monologue he does engage with the audience, but many of his lines are delivered straight to the camera. Or rather, delivered straight to the bottom of the camera. It's like when you're talking to someone and you're looking them in the eye, but their eye keeps darting to the bottom of your face, and you can tell they're trying to decide if that tiny mole at the corner of your mouth is leftover chocolate.
Letterman takes his cues from giant handwritten cards on the side of the stage. It makes his inclusion of the audience more natural, gives him a reason to work the stage -- and I always get a secret thrill when they show the little guy holding the cards. It makes me feel like I'm in on the joke. And in this economy, if that guy still has his job, maybe there's hope for all of us.
Conan is a strong contender here, with his memorable Triumph the Insult Dog and "In the Year 3000" (formerly 2000). Adding the dulcet tones of William Shatner to his Twitter Tracker feature was inspired.
But Letterman's Top 10 is pure genius and is no worse for the wear. The No. 2 Sign That You're Staying at a Bad Resort? "Pay-per-view movies are all videos of you sleeping."
SidekicksBoth Letterman and O'Brien are admirably loyal to their sidekicks -- to the point that Letterman even did a bizarre cameo in the 1994 movie "Cabin Boy" for Chris Elliott.
Conan's fondness for Andy Richter has never wavered, and the host helped write and produce the failed sitcom "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" in 2002. But I don't like the way that Richter now lurks offstage at a podium, in the shadows.
Letterman, ultimately, is a loner. Yes, he'll occasionally throw a bone to Paul Shaffer, but the creepiness outweighs the credibility there. Doesn't anyone know how to share a stage anymore?
Point: No one
What good is late-night success unless you use your powers for mockery? Letterman's targets, for the most part, can take it: Oprah Winfrey, Kathie Lee Gifford, Sarah Palin. But it doesn't say a lot for the comedian's view of women.
Conan is more of an equal-opportunity basher, as evidenced by the segment "Conan O'Brien Hates My Homeland." He needs a good war of words with Eminem or someone.
Je ne sais quoi
I like Conan O'Brien. He is immensely likable, to the point that I would like to have a drink with him and would even pay for my own. That goes a long way for me. He doesn't seem to take his good fortune for granted. I can't remember Conan ever being openly contemptuous of a guest.
But Letterman is a legend. He is my Ernie Kovacs, and the last face I want to see before I go to sleep. He has what a friend of mine calls "comedy gravitas." He has the heft to go head-to-head with celebrity heavyweights and newsmakers. If only he could have gotten his hands on the post-Divine Brown Hugh Grant! Ah, what might have been.
Final score: 6-0, Letterman
It seems like a fairly decisive win, although I didn't compare their hair. (That point would have gone to Conan.)
Of course, all this means I'll have to switch to Conan. Because I do try to root for the underdog.
Then again, I am hearing awfully good things about Jimmy Kimmel ...