Thursday, February 03, 2005

Bitten from ESPNs Bill Simmons

A great explanation of the difference between the genius of Dave Letterman and the total Vanilla of Jay Leno. Conan O'Brien cant replace him soon enough.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As you're reading this, I'm probably standing in a buffet line at Media Day, waiting for a 300-pound sportswriter to stop loading chicken fingers on his plate. But I wanted to post something about Letterman's tribute to Johnny Carson last night, just a talented guy paying tribute to another talented guy. Letterman ended up speaking extemporaneously for something like 15 straight minutes, focused and emotional, giving a heartfelt eulogy for the man who inspired his career. And since it was the highlight of my first night in Jacksonville, I thought I would write about it.

The Letterman-Carson dynamic always fascinated me. In the mid-'80s, when Letterman would occasionally visit Johnny's show, then Johnny returned the favor during the transcendent "Letterman Goes to L.A." Week, Carson was the one guy who always left Dave a little flustered. And Dave never got flustered, not even when Crispin Glover whistled a karate kick at his head. Letterman always had too much nervous energy when Johnny was in the room -- it was obvious -- so he would over-laugh at Johnny's jokes and rip through his own material with a little too much gusto. There was something endearing about it, like watching a son trying to please his father.

Two decades later, I was watching Letterman pay his respects to Johnny on his own show. Since both men meant a great deal to me as a kid, it was emotional to watch -- especially since Letterman should have been the one who replaced Carson in the first place. And I'm not sure if he's ever really gotten over it; since he moved to CBS, it's like he's been playing a caricature of himself, except for those rare moments when he turns into a real person again (like after his heart surgery, or those painful days after 9/11). I don't think he's cared about his show for some time, but he probably can't imagine doing anything else. So he's stuck. Unlike with sports, your skills can't slip that noticeably in late-night TV -- it's more of a gradual decline, and there's no way to pinpoint when someone wasn't as good as they used to be. With Letterman, the show that used to be a parody of a TV show somehow became a parody of itself, and I'm not even sure when it happened. Then again, if he had taken over Johnny's spot, he would have defended that territory much more zealously, and he never would have allowed himself to trail a hack like Leno in the ratings.

Of course, no moment illustrated the difference between Leno and Letterman like the days after Johnny's death. Letterman may go overboard most of the time, but you never lose sight of the fact that he's a real person -- flawed, deeply troubled, somewhat anguished, but a real person nonetheless. Leno? He's a blank slate. Seriously, do you know one thing about him? Would you want to have dinner with him? Hell, would you want to have coffee with him? Me neither. Even the magazine features about him invariably drift towards his overall elusiveness as a human being, like even his friends can't figure him out. He's like the Manchurian Talk Show Host.

Last Monday night, Leno came out with a predictably awkward tribute to Carson, devoting his entire show to the man he replaced, conveniently forgetting how his manager leaked the "NBC pushing out Johnny?" story in the New York Post that hastened Johnny's retirement in the first place, or how Leno didn't even ACKNOWLEDGE Johnny on the night he took over the "Tonight Show," or how Johnny famously avoided Leno and his old show after his retirement, compounding the insult by writing jokes for Letterman's monologue as recently as last month. His "tribute" to Carson remains a defining Leno moment, like watching a female Olympic gymnast giving another gymnast one of those fake hugs they don't really mean. What a crock. May we never take this man seriously again. If we ever did.

Am I biased? Absolutely. I'm a Letterman guy. I wouldn't be doing this for a living if not for a handful of people that passed through my life, and he's one of those people. With that said, I thought the past eight days illustrated the difference between Leno and Letterman better than any show ever could. It's not that Leno is a bad person -- obviously he isn't -- but that it's physically impossible to feel any semblance of a connection to him. Maybe that's what some people need when they're falling asleep at midnight -- someone safe and harmless, someone who doesn't challenge them in any way. But he shouldn't have been the guy to replace Johnny. That's the bottom line.

As for Carson, I loved two things about him over anything else: Nobody was better at saving a bad joke, and no celebrity walked away with more dignity. Carson headed to Malibu and never came back -- not for an Oscars show, not for a Barbara Walters interview, not for a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" cameo, not even for an informercial -- and only because he wouldn't allow us to remember him any other way than we already did. Even in his final few years with the "Tonight Show," Leno and Letterman were breathing down his neck, a clown named Arsenio Hall was stealing some of his younger viewers, and SNL was running that vicious "Carsenio" sketch on his own network. The writing was on the wall. He was the face of a dying generation of comedy. So he left. And never looked back.

I just hope Letterman has the good sense to do the same one day


Matthew said...

This is great.

I never thought that someone from ESPN *shudder* could say something I would wholeheartedly agree with. Everything he said is true (well, except for the fact that Carson did make a few guest appearances, on Letterman's show, during his retirement.

Still, this was a great rundown of the situation. Thanks for posting it!

Mike Overall said...

Letterman had what Carson had: the ability to make a bad joke even funnier then the good ones. Everytime Leno tosses up a crapper he looks around like it isn't his fault. I literally have to change the channel when he does that because it's too painful to venture viewing. Conan has the potential to do this but so far he glosses over them ASAP. Johnny will be missed more then anyone can imagine.

supine said...

I agree totally, Sparky. I have never understood the draw to Leno. Letterman is sarcastic and dark, but so intelligent. Leno...? I don't know.

However, I do have much love for Conan. Especially when he makes his "owl" face.