Tuesday, August 02, 2005
In the World of What Should Have Been & Would Be If I Were King--"The Tonight Show, Starring David Letterman"
Ok, let me just say from the outset, I'm no fan of Jay Leno. Oh, I'm sure he's a nice guy. At least that's what we hear from everyone, how "nice" he is. My problem, other than that he's an awful interviewer, and he generally seems to be trying too hard to get a laugh, and he keeps pilfering other shows' talent and ideas, is simply this - David Letterman should be at that desk and not Jay.
It's all water way under the bridge, I know, but since this is my place to be relevant or mundane, I choose the latter - and with this rant, I commence. Plus, I'm on vacation, so what do you want from me!
Was their anything more awkward on the night of the first Tonight Show following Johnny Carson's death, to hear Jay attempt to be somehow appreciative of Johnny's career. Hey Jay, what about on the night of your first Tonight Show in '92, and you refused to thank Johnny in life? It was tacky. It showed no class.
I'm just saying....
Was their anything more poignant than on the night of the first Late Show after Johnny died, to hear Dave's true appreciation of Johnny's talent (still star-struck and awestruck), tell jokes in his monologue that Johnny had written for Dave, and celebrate his mentor's unique contributions to poplar culture? I have that Late Show recorded from back in January, and I can't make myself erase it. Dave captured Johnny's spirit that night not through trolling Don Rickles out one more time, but through music. Johnny always fancied himself a drummer in the lineage of Buddy Rich. So, why wouldn't you pay tribute through Doc, Tommy and Ed playing "Here Comes That Rainy Day." In the language of that time (and with all due respect to my high school jazz band teacher, Jackie Thomas, who, I swear, talked this way all the time because he was time warped in the 60's), "Cool, man, it was a monster, crazy!"
Affairs of network politics are not my thing. To be sure, Dave doesn't need Jay's Tonight Show, and why would he want it--it's (insert remarkably crude phrase most guys learned as teenagers when wondering whether or not to ask a girl out who had previously been involved with someone else). He had earned Johnny's Tonight Show, and it was denied him. But make no mistake, NBC screwed him, and you always got the sense that they did it to Johnny, too.
Ironically, the man who would be king of late night has been able to do with his successor, Conan, what was denied the true King of late night - name an heir.
I grew up with Johnny Carson, as we all did - and my rebellious side was honed on the work of Letterman. Much has been said of Johnny's career. I can't think of him without thinking of my grandparents. When I'd stay with them, there was no greater treat than to be able to stay up at least for Johnny's monologue, enjoy some popcorn and a Diet Rite, and listen to my grandfather laugh. I mean, good belly laughs (and he had quite a belly). Anything that could make him do something I never saw him do, must be magic, and I wanted in to share the moment with him.
Dave came later for me. His late night show premiered at the start of my senior year in high school. It was so different. So fresh. Dave was the "anti-Johnny," only being Johnny was all he ever aspired to. Throughout his tenure at NBC, and then in the move to CBS, there was always an implict appreciation given to the art of television and for the pioneering work of those who'd gone before in that medium.
With Jay, you've got a standup comic who's really never been more than that. There's nothing wrong with standup. I love it. It's just that standup is what happens during a show. It isn't THE show. As a guy who comes from behind the curtain and does six minutes of primo material, Jay was actually really good. You stretch that into an hour, it gets tired.
Dave's act has surely changed over the years. He doesn't come out from the behind the desk as much. He puts his other minions up to the physical comedy. I miss that from him. But a more acerbic wit you will not find, still.
His first program after the 9/11 attack was among the most powerful hours of television he's ever produced. A guy who makes a living making you laugh, talked openly about the absurdity of such a notion as the nation was in shock. There will be a time to laugh, but not now. So, he talked about what our lives, NYC, the nation endured.
Back in the day, folks fretted coming on his show because he was perceived as mean. What that was, I think, was an effort to keep folks honest. You never get the feeling that Dave's too "wowed" by Hollywood. So, if you show up on his show with attitude, your tail is his, and he won't have any trouble handing it to you on national television. But if you show up to have some fun and have a little humility, he'll make you look like a star at his expense.
A lesson he's learned, no doubt, from the master of the craft.