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Letterman vs. Conan

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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?

Yes. Conceded.

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.

Ratings
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.

Point: Letterman

Guests
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.

Point: Letterman

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.

Point: Letterman

Bits
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."

Point: Letterman

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

Vendettas
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.

Point: Letterman

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.

Point: Letterman

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 ...

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7 Comments

I have been watching late night TV since the days of Steve Allen and Jack Parr. Carson was the master with Parr and Leno running 2 & 3 or maybe 3 & 2.

Neither Letterman or O`Brien can hold a candle to any of them.

Give them their golden handshake and send them packing.

When Conan was on Late Night he was edgy and tremendously funny.It seems like he's really playing it safe now in the far more visible timeslot. I'm sure we shall never see the likes of The Masturbating Bear or Preparation H Raymond again.It all feels a bit forced on The Tonight Show with Conan having to mature it up for his new gig.

Since I'm 51,I should applaud this attempt at sophistication but I miss the more raw Conan of the past.Letterman seemed to keep his edge even when moving to the earlier time years back.

Perhaps it's an indication of my aging demographic,but Jimmy Fallon with his horrible 7th Floor West skit and his incessant uttering of the word "awesome" like some high school cheerleader make him nearly unwatchable for me. Even Carson Daley's new fake hand-held scratchy film look is an improvement in comparison.

Letterman is purely not funny, i've watched one of his shows and have not laughed once.

his top 10 is the worst skit ever, maybe 1 out of 10 of them is funny, the rest is just dumb

conans standup is actually clever not just letterman and his retarded sidekick laughing at them

I totally agree that under the current circumstances, Letterman is much more enjoyable than Conan. That said, I think Conan's new show is incredibly different from the old Late Night: the bits in the previous show were much funnier, much wittier. The new routines, when I laugh, it's because they're stupid, not because they're clever.

For my money though, I like Craig Ferguson over them both.

6-0 seems a bit extreme. I agree that Letterman has attained a level of legend that Conan has yet to, and overall he's had a far better career, but Conan's show is so much fresher and modern than Dave's is now. Dave lost his edge in my opinion. I hope that doesn't happen to Conan. I generally only tune into Letterman for certain guests, but I tune into to Conan for Conan.

You're welcome! And yes, I did see Shatner read Palin's tweet's as poetry. I misinterpreted what you meant, since you mentioned "In The Year 3000" just before that. My mistake! I'm 21-years-old, and I started watching Conan a few years ago when I was a college freshman. I agree that he really does seem to appeal to the younger crowd, though not many people I know watch him (or any late night talk shows). I liked watching Leno when he was on The Tonight Show, and while I'm not a regular Letterman viewer, I have a lot of respect for him. But, I adore Conan, and never miss his show.

Actually, Conan does, and has always, used cue cards. I know this because a) I'm a nerd, and b) you can occasionally see the cue-card guy when Conan segues to a commercial, and the camera zooms out so you can see the crew guys behind the cameras. I think pretty much all of the late night hosts use cue cards, with the exception of Craig Ferguson, who doesn't use anything. Also, I have experience working at a TV station, and TelePrompTers are set up so that the person reading off them looks directly into the camera. A monitor is attached to the pedestal so that it faces up, and a two-way mirror is placed in front of the camera lens to reflect what's on the prompter, while the camera shoots straight through it. And one more thing...William Shatner is featured during the "In The Year 3000" bit, not Twitter Tracker. Other than those few things, I enjoyed reading your take on the "battle" between Dave and Conan, though I don't agree with some of your points. Your bias skews towards Letterman, and mine is whole-heartedly towards Conan. But, Dave deserves his time at the top. As long as Conan his successful in his own right as host of The Tonight Show, I'll be happy.

Thanks for the response! And thanks for the insider info... I've been to a taping for Jay Leno, but that's it. And the William Shatner thing -- I was talking about when he reads Sarah Palin's Twitter poetry. Have you seen it? Sublime.

Can I ask how old you are? My editor thinks that Conan is really appealing to younger viewers... I'm 39, and apparently no longer a "younger" viewer. Maybe I'm just a victim of my demographic.

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This page contains a single entry by Paige Wiser published on August 12, 2009 12:48 PM.

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